Group works to preserve grotto as place of prayer

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JASPER — If you’re ever out at the Mother of God grotto on Bartley Street, there’s a chance you’ll run into someone from the Friends of the Grotto nonprofit.

The nonprofit’s board members — Dee Ann and Tim Bell, Irene and Art Kapp, Andrea and Nathan Bradford and Mark Fierst — all live within walking distance of the grotto that is a popular place for prayer and self-reflection, and they’re dedicated to restoring and preserving it.

“I’m probably on site every week — as are the other board members — either praying or checking on the site and upkeep,” said Tim Bell.

Friends of the Grotto formed in 2016 to preserve as much of the St. Joseph Grotto, which was also on Bartley Street, as possible before Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center began construction on the $8-million, 15,000-square-foot Family Medicine Center at the corner of 13th and Bartley streets. The center will host a medical residency program for medical physicians pursuing family practice and is meant to attract more general practitioners to the area. The building is currently under construction on the same ground St. Joseph Grotto used to sit on.

Once the hospital announced its project, Friends of the Grotto had four months to relocate as much of St. Joseph Grotto as possible. The group removed 30 of the stone flower pots and relocated 20 to the Mother of God grotto, which sits to the south of the former St. Joseph Grotto. The other 10 are in storage with the 7,000-pound archway and the 700 geodes the group chiseled off the permanent structures.

It’s been months of hard work that isn’t over yet. The group is currently fundraising to re-create the St. Joseph and baby Jesus statue that was key to the St. Joseph Grotto. According to a fundraising letter sent in October, the group has been unable to find an outdoor statue that mimics the tenderness shown in St. Joseph’s face in the original. For that reason, the board decided to pursue a replica. The group received a bid from a sculptor in Bedford who will re-create the statue out of limestone for $15,300. The board is focusing its energy on raising those funds, and the advisory board for Cathedral Health Care Center (formerly the Providence Home) has already pledged a matching gift up to $8,000.

Once the statue is complete, Bell said the board plans to place it and the original archway at the foot of the hill behind the Mary statue at the Mother of God grotto. The board also plans to host prayer events at the grotto and make it more visible in the community. In May, the group hosted the May Crowning event — a ritual that recognizes Mary as the queen of heaven and earth — at the grotto and plans to make that an annual event. The group also wants to host monthly rosaries at the grotto.

“The end goal is to allow people a place of prayer,” Bell said.

Many people already use the grotto for prayer. Bell said he knows of a few prayer groups that meet at the space weekly, weather permitting, and he’s met people from Florida and Missouri who visit the grotto.

The grotto also has historical significance. It was built in 1954 by Father Philip Ottavi in honor of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Ottavi wanted to build the shrine to imitate the Our Lady of Lourdes grotto in France, where in the 1850s a vision of the Holy Mother appeared to a 14-year-old peasant girl who would become St. Bernadette Soubirous.

Building the grotto served as a way for Ottavi to overcome his fears. A devastating earthquake struck Ottavi’s village in central Italy when he was a young boy. The tremors caused the Ottavis’ home to collapse, killing the boy’s family. Ottavi was trapped beneath the rubble for hours before being freed by rescue workers. For years, Ottavi harbored antipathy toward stones. The story goes that Ottavi realized he needed to overcome his fear and hatred of stones because they, like everything, are God’s creation.

In the years since its construction, several weddings have taken place in front of Mary’s statue at the grotto, and priests used to regularly lead residents of the Providence Home in saying the rosary there and held devotions at the grotto. That practice stopped, however, when more and more residents were older and less able to get outside to the grotto. Now, the grotto serves mostly as a place for personal prayer and reflection.

Anyone wishing to donate to the Friends of the Grotto can send donations made out to Friends of the Grotto, Inc. to P.O. Box 564, Jasper, 47547-0564.

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