Notre Dame students save seminary grotto's stones

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

A group of parochial students is saving a local piece of cherished Catholic history in an unorthodox way -- by smashing it into pieces of religious rubble.

Armed with sledgehammers, chisels and gallons of elbow grease, dozens of Notre Dame Regional High School seniors are descending upon the southeast corner of the old St. Vincent's Seminary property in Cape Girardeau this week to tear down a grotto that was built nearly 50 years ago.

"We heard that the university was going to tear it down as part of the River Campus project," said Tony Buehrle, development director for the high school and project coordinator. "We didn't want to see it just torn down and thrown away."

Southeast Missouri State University planned to remove the grotto this summer to make room for its arts school. Now, the granite the students are knocking down and placing on pallets will be used to build two new memorial grottoes on Notre Dame's campus.

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, said Notre Dame principal Brother David Migliorino.

"Both of them have passed on. But their legacies will live on for all to see," he said. "I think it's wonderful to be able to keep that piece of history in the community and at Notre Dame High School."

The volunteer group of students began working in about 15-person rotations on Monday to tear down the grotto.

Fighting muggy 85-degree temperatures, the 17- and 18-year-old students worked to knock apart the grotto's tough, red granite exterior and carried the stones by hand to pallets for shrink-wrapping.

"It's really hard knocking this stone off the wall," said student Hannah Davis, who had her sleeves rolled up to get some sun. "But all the hard work will be worth it if it means saving a piece of history."

Davis' mother, Tonya Davis, is a teacher at Notre Dame. She was proud of the students who showed up.

"All we had to do is pick up the phone and they were here," she said. "This will be their legacy 20 years from now. They will be able to say they helped build new grottoes."

Student body president Roger Mainor said that's just how Notre Dame students are.

"It's also great just to get outside and be with some of my friends," he said. "It's a plus that it's a good cause. What we're doing is better than just bulldozing it."

He admitted the work is harder than he thought.

"I'm kind of poopin' out right now," he said. "Slinging that sledgehammer is hard work."

The students will work until Friday and hope to build new grottoes before school begins again this fall.

Student building

It's fitting that Catholic students are tearing down the grotto because Catholic students also built it.

During the 1953-54 school year, seminary students worked to build the grotto, which was to serve as a shrine to the Virgin Mary, as well as a place of solitude and prayer for young men training to enter the priesthood.

Leading those students was a newly ordained priest, the Rev. Carl Callier, who also attended St. Vincent's. Though Callier is now deceased, his friend, the Rev. Louis Derbes, an archivist for St. Mary's of the Barrens in Perryville, remembers the talk about building a new grotto.

"At the time, we had a very little small grotto in that general area," Derbes said. "Father Callier was in the class behind me and then became a professor there at Cape. He got the grandiose idea of building what was there now."

Callier went on to serve for 30 years as a missionary in China before returning to Perryville, Derbes said.

Derbes said he was glad to hear Notre Dame students were using the granite to make new grottoes for prayer and meditation as the seminary students had done.

"I know Father Callier would be glad, too," Derbes said. "He and those students worked very hard. It sounds like these students are working hard, too. It's come full circle, I guess."

335-6611, extension 137


Those interested in helping remove the grotto may call Tony Buehrle at Notre Dame High School at 335-6772.

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