The grotto on the grounds of historic St. Vincent's College can be seen in this November 1960 photograph. (G.D. Fronabarger ~ Southeast Missourian)
For the first 16 years or so that I was employed by the Southeast Missourian, by daily commute to the newspaper office usually took me along the river road between downtown Cape Girardeau and South Cape, where I lived. It's what my family calls "the scenic route."
While the Mighty Mississippi always provided beauty and interest, the highlight of the route, especially heading north, was passing St. Vincent's College, with its white crosses pointing to the heavens and its beautiful, park-like grounds. And then there was the grotto, an outdoor shrine dedicated to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. Fred Lynch's recent blog about the closing of the college reminded me about how much I missed seeing the grotto and the beautiful statue high up in its granite wall.
That induced me to track down what history I could about the grotto. It's presented here in three articles from the 1950s and a few end notes.
Published May 29, 1954, in The Southeast Missourian:
Perhaps the motorists on the bridge or on (Aquamsi) Street along the river, have wondered what that huge rock pile may be, up the hill in front of St. Vincent's College.
The story is simple. St. Vincent's College, an old historical landmark in these parts -- 111 years old this year -- is a Catholic seminary preparing high school boys for the priesthood. This year Catholics all over the world are celebrating a Marian year -- a year dedicated by prayer and good works to Mary the Mother of Jesus. The students at the college decided last November to do something very special -- to erect an outdoor shrine or grotto as a place of worship of God and in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Boys working on the grotto shown above.)
Since then, any where from two to 20 boys get into their oldest work clothes each afternoon after school and on holidays. They give up their baseball, basketball and free time for other forms of recreation and pitch in to do the hard manual labor of raising the concrete and rock shrine. There are always one, two or three priests who teach at the seminary, out on the job too, guiding and helping in the work. At first, the boys used nothing but wheelbarrows and shovels and perspiration to get old sandstones dug up and put in place. Soon a small concrete mixer was loaned to them and the walls began to rise. Recently, several local benefactors and contractors have helped in supplying materials, rock, broken concrete and dirt. The grotto has risen day by day till now the main building work is almost completed.
The shrine will be 25 feet high, 55 feet and encircled with a waist-high retaining wall. Lots of work is still to be done, especially the facing of the entire grotto and walls with native red granite from the Ozarks and raised tuck-pointing. Then too, concrete walks and steps, running water, electric lights, lawns and gardens -- all are planned by the boys for the next two or three years, if materials and money come in.
The finished job should be one of the most beautiful and largest religious shrines in this part of the country. It will furnish an ideal scenic view of the river and bridge from the college and a beautiful river-front view of Cape Girardeau to visitors coming in over the bridge. Above all, it will be another manifestation of worship and adoration to Almighty God, and a tribute to the Woman chosen by Him as the mother of Jesus.
Published Dec. 8, 1954, in The Southeast Missourian:
St. Vincent's Students, Faculty Dedicate Shrine They Erected
"Our Lady of the Cape," a grotto built as a shrine to Mary, Mother of the Miraculous Medal, as a feature of the Catholic Marian Year, was formally dedicated this afternoon in ceremonies by students, faculty members and others at St. Vincent's College.
The shrine, still incomplete, is being built by students and faculty at the college. Of native stone, it stands on the college hill overlooking the Mississippi River and is expected to e a beacon to river boats as they come upstream.
Work on the grotto was started just a year ago. The rough exterior is to be covered with red granite. Kneeling benches for worship will be installed and the structure will be landscaped.
High in the structure is a niche in which a statue of Mary in white Carrara marble will be installed. This is being carved in Italy, and while it had been expected in time for the dedicatory services, it has not yet arrived. A temporary replica of Mary is now in the niche.
The ceremony was conducted today as the final day of the Marian year proclaimed by Pope Pius XII. A light is installed in the recess in which the statue of Mary rests and will shine during the night.
The program this afternoon began with a processional from the chapel to the grotto of students, faculty members, sisters, priests from St. Louis and Perryville and lay members of the church. There the Very Rev. James W. Stakelum, C.M., provincial of the Congregation of the Mission here, perf0rmed the ceremony of dedication. This was followed by the singing of the Ave Maria.
Because of weather conditions, the ceremony was them moved to the chapel where the Rev. William Pittman, C.M., member of the faculty of St. Louis Preparatory Seminary and former prefect of the college here, delivered the sermon.
Combined with the dedication was a traditional, century-old ceremony participated in by boys and faculty through the years since St. Vincent's College was founded. Called "The Crowning of the Statue," the ceremony provides a crown for a statue of Mary and the placing of names of students and faculty in a heart around the statue. This particular figure of Mary has been in the study hall for three-quarters of a century.
Published May 31, 1956, in The Southeast Missourian:
Grotto built at St. Vincent's College by students, staff.
Construct Impressive Stone Grotto at St. Vincent's College
An impressive stone grotto, a religious shrine dedicated to Mary, the mother of Christ, has been completed at St. Vincent's College after 2 1/2 years of sweat and toil by students and faculty of the historic old school.
It stands high on the main college hill look9ng southeastw3ardly toward the Mississippi River, a monument that will greet those entering the city from the south by river or road, and also from the east by those approaching from Illinois.
The story of the grotto is one of great faith and courage on the part of faculty members and pupils at St. Vincent's a school providing high school curriculum for young men who plan to enter the priesthood.
Decision in 1953
It was in November of 1953 that the boys of the college decided to erect the grotto as a testimonial to Mary. The plan envisioned also the beautification of the grounds from the southwest corner where the grotto is located down to the road along the river.
This was in keeping, too, with the continuing effort to make Cape Girardeau beautiful. And, as it turned out, the project was completed in time for the college, itself 114 years old, to use it as a token of respect and congratulations to the city in observance of its 150th birthday.
The undertaking was a huge one, considering the lack of funds, tools and unskilled workers. First the grotto-side had to be leveled and filled. Dirt was hauled with wheelbarrows, apple crates, baskets, an old cart and even on the flat surface of old doors.
Rocks were gathered on he grounds from old walls and foundations and were laboriously carried to the site and concreted into place. The students and faculty paid for the cement needed to bind the grotto together.
Before long, businessmen and city officials gave a helping hand by contributing and hauling truckloads of dirt, sand and rock. Then, as the word spread, donations toward the grotto and proposed statue began to arrive by mail.
Funds Came In
At one time there was only 20 cents in the grotto fund. Here trusting faith of the boys and the fathers entered in. A load of cement was ordered and before the day was over, a contribution was received with more than enough to pay for it.
Day after day, while they could be playing tennis or baseball, or swimming or be engaged in some other form of recreation, the boys and priests gave up their free time to help build the grotto.
Blisters and bruised and cut hands -- aggravated by the sting of cement, for not even trowels were used -- became a badge of their sacrifice. As the grotto rose higher, rocks and buckets of cement were handed along from hand to hand up the ladders to the boys at the top. It took a year of daily hard work before the rough stone work was finished.
The job of facing the entire grotto and surrounding wall was started in September 1954. When this task was finished, the structure was sandblasted. This removed loose concrete and made way for tuck-pointing with green mortar.
Ordered From Italy
Meanwhile, a beautiful white marble statue of Mary had been ordered from Italy. It was installed and lights were focused on it. When turned on at night, they bathe the statue in brilliant light, forming an impressive view from the river road early each evening.
Lawns, concrete sidewalks, a water sprinkling system, cushions for the granite kneeling benches, trees, shrubbery and a rose bed were added to beautify the grotto area. When this had been completed, the edifice was formally dedicated recently at an outdoor Mass and benediction service.
The grotto stands 30 feet in height and its circular form is continued into an extending granite wall. Several architects and builders have admired the sturdiness and symmetry of the seven-spired shrine, built by young men who were amateurs in construction, but skilled in faith and devotion to Jesus and his mother.
And from the students and faculty come thanks to the people of the area who, by contributions of material and money, made the building of the shrine possible. Among those particularly active in fostering the work and seeing it through to completion was the Very Rev. William A. Ryan, C.M., president of the college.
After Southeast Missouri State University purchased the closed St. Vincent's College, officials planned to tear down the grotto to make way for the new River Campus. In 2003, hearing of those plans, Tony Buehrle, development director for Notre Dame Regional High School, and others helped organize a scheme to disassemble the grotto and re-use its materials for two new shrines at the high school. This was accomplished by Notre Dame seniors who volunteered their labor.
An article in the Southeast Missourian dated June 17, 2003, explained that the new grottoes on the high school campus would be memorials: "One of the grottoes will honor Sister Mary Ann Fischer, a Notre Dame principal for 11 years. The other is for Martin Jansen, a longtime high school booster and contractor. Both were instrumental in getting the new high school built..."
That article also completes the history of the grotto by naming the man who came up with the idea. The story quotes the late Rev. Louis Derbes, C.M., then archivist for St. Mary's of the Barrens in Perryville, Missouri: "At the time (in the 1950s), we had a very small grotto in that general area," Derbes said. The late Rev. Carl Callier, then a newly-ordained priest who had attended St. Vincent's, "was in the class behind me and then became a professor there at Cape," said Derbes. "He got the grandiose idea of building what was there now."
Callier served 30 years as a missionary in China before returning to Perryville. He died in 1990 in New York, but was buried at The Barrens in Perryville.
St. Vincent's shrine to "Our Lady of the Cape" yielded a third grotto. The same year it was razed, a Boy Scout chose the construction of a Marian grotto at St. Mary's Cathedral in Cape Girardeau for his Eagle Scout project. James Williams, the son of Daniel and Marsha Williams of Cape Girardeau, and numerous volunteers completed the shrine in seven months. It was dedicated to the memory of the late Albertine Fisher, a longtime teacher at St. Mary Cathedral School.