By ROY HOFFMAN
MOBILE, Ala. —
To Gaillard Teague, who’s starting Spring Hill College this month, there is a site on campus that holds special meaning.
Not far from St. Joseph Chapel, the college’s church, is the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, a statue of the Virgin Mary looking out from a small cave.
“As an incoming freshman, I love to walk up there all the time and say a quick prayer every time I pass it,” says Teague, 18, who grew up in Mobile.
As a child, Teague enjoyed playing in the grotto too, climbing up next to Mary.
Now, as a student, she walks to the grotto where people sometimes pray, some choosing to “leave a gift,” she says — a rosary, a cross.
“It’s kind of a cornerstone for the campus,” she says. “It’s a place of comfort and peace.”
Built in 1903, according to the Rev. Christopher Viscardi, who’s writing a history of the college, Spring Hill’s grotto symbolizes the miracle at Lourdes, France.
In 1858, as the story goes, Bernadette saw a vision of Mary in a rose bush, and heard Mary’s voice.
With its cave and cold-water stream, Lourdes became a destination for pilgrims seeking miracles, especially healing.
Lourdes, says Viscardi, “became the major Catholic pilgrimage center of the world by turn of the century. It was an international place of healing and miracles.”
Grottoes symbolizing the Lourdes miracle were built at various places throughout the world. Notre Dame, for example, has a large one, Viscardi says.
Spring Hill’s grotto was built only 45 years after the original event.
Although it has never become a local pilgrim center, Viscardi says, it has long been a place where students have gathered for prayer.
To Viscardi, who is head of Spring Hill’s division of philosophy and theology, the grotto “calls to centering and focusing in the presence of God.”
George Gilmore, professor of theology at Spring Hill, says that the concept of grottoes as “places of spiritual power” connects with other cultures and faith traditions, too.
Historically, says Viscardi, Spring Hill’s grotto even had a pipe bringing in running water.
Chris Clarke, who graduated from Spring Hill in 1986, spent little time in the grotto during his college years, he says.
As the years have gone on, though, the grotto has become a meaningful destination.
“I have a strong devotion to Mary,” he says.
Often, when walking or jogging through the campus, he stops in to pray, to say the Rosary.
In the calm surround, says Clarke, a Mobile Realtor, “your worries and anxieties just dissipate.”
Clarke asked himself: “What could I do to honor Mary?”
He decided to volunteer doing weeding and planting.
Every couple of weeks he delivers fresh flowers in homage to Mary, beautifying the grotto.
Peggy Cunningham, an author in Mobile, did not go to Spring Hill, but she grew up nearby.
“The grotto was awe-inspiring,” she says.
“We were learning the mysteries of the Rosary,” she recalls. “Sometimes I would think, ‘She is saying the Sorrowful Mysteries,” referring to a litany about the crucifixion. “She’s thinking about her son on the cross.”
At other times, Cunningham sensed that Mary was saying the Glorious Mysteries, the Rosary prayers related to the resurrection.
“Depending on the time of day,” she says of Mary, “she would seem different.”
As a child, Cunningham recalls once climbing into the little cave and getting stuck.
“I was afraid,” she says, “and prayed to the Blessed Mother.”
In her 2010 novel, “One True Place,” largely set around Spring Hill College, there’s a scene in the grotto inspired by that childhood moment of anxiety, and belief.
When Cunningham visits the campus today she finds, in Our Lady of Lourdes, a sense of continuity as well as spiritual uplift.
The college has grown, the buildings have multiplied, and the grotto, nearly 110 years old, seems from a different time.
But Mary “was always there,” says Cunningham. “Nothing ever changed for her.”