National Shrine Grotto of Lourdes



1805:  St. Mary’s on the Hill, a Catholic church, was built at the site of the current shrine.

1808:  Mt. St. Mary’s College (now Mt. St. Mary’s University and Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary) was founded. Rev. John DuBois discovered a natural grotto on the mountain, the site of the present-day Emmitsburg shrine.

1858:  St. Bernadette reported a series of apparitions in Lourdes, France.

1875:  The replica grotto was built by Reverend John Waterson, then-president of Mt. St. Mary’s College.

1891:  Monsignor James Dunn provided money for the Our Lady statue in the niche above the Grotto.

1906:  The Corpus Christi Chapel was built where the “Old Grotto,” discovered by Rev. DuBois, once stood.

1913:  St. Mary’s on the Hill was destroyed by fire.

1964:  Pangborn Memorial Campanile, the bell tower topped by the golden statue of Our Lady, was built on the site of St. Mary’s on the Hill.

1965:  Cardinal Shehan of Baltimore declared the Grotto a Public Oratory, and appointed Msgr. Hugh J. Phillips chaplain of the Grotto.

1976:  The Glass Chapel was built at the site.

2007:  Bishop Jacques Perrier, bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes, presented the Emmitsburg Grotto with the gift of a stone from the Lourdes Grotto. It was built into the stone wall of the Emmitsburg replica.

2013:  The Richard and Mary Lee Miller Family Visitors Center and St. Bernadette’s Gift Shoppe opened.


Many local Catholics believe that the Emmitsburg area was special even before the Grotto was built there. It was the site of a seventeenth century Marian apparition reported by a Native American man who had converted to Catholicism, and the site of a series of contemporary Marian apparitions reported by Gianna Talone Sullivan. Catholic settlers named landmarks in the area “Mary’s Mountain” and “St. Joseph’s Valley.” Elizabeth Ann Seton lived and worked in Emmitsburg, and her shrine is located at the basilica in town. Mt. St. Mary’s University and Seminary, called the “Cradle of Bishops” for the number of U.S. bishops who are alumni, was founded in Emmitsburg in 1808.

The site of the Grotto itself, on a mountain above Mt. St. Mary’s, has long been a site for devotion. It was home to a church, St. Mary’s on the Hill, founded in 1805 and built by Rev. John DuBois. Fr. DuBois discovered a natural spring and grotto on the mountain, some fifty years prior to the Lourdes apparitions. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (the first U.S.-born Catholic saint) reportedly walked and prayed on the mountain as well. Since the founding of Mt. St. Mary’s College in 1808, seminarians have hiked up the hillside to pray, using trails carved through the woods, past crosses affixed to trees (Lombardi n.d.). Fr. Simon Gabriel Bruté, of Mt. St. Mary’s, was a leader in these projects.

Rev. John Waterson is credited with building the replica grotto in 1875, and additional statues and buildings have been added since that time. Currently, visitors pass by St. Anthony’s Cemetery and Mt. St. Mary’s Cemetery on their way up the mountainside toward the Grotto. Once inside the gates, there is a parking lot at the foot of a bell tower with a huge golden statue of Our Lady, the Pangborn Campanile, which rings “Immaculate Mary” and other songs at intervals throughout the day. This golden statue, visible for miles around, is a landmark for cars driving on Maryland Rt. 15 as well as for planes flying to nearby Camp David. Over the hillside to the right, a log cabin belonging to a nineteenth century caretaker sits overlooking Frederick County. The Chapel of St. Mary on the Hill, a modern-looking chapel with large windows dating to 1976, sits across the parking lot. Popularly called “The Glass Chapel,” Mass is held at this chapel weekly. There is a new visitor’s center housing St. Bernadette’s Gift Shoppe as well. Some of the beams in the visitor’s center were taken from trees that fell at the shrine during Hurricane Sandy in 2012; miraculously, no statues or buildings at the shrine were damaged.

A large gate and mosaics of Our Lady of Guadalupe and of Jesus mark the entrance to the holy site. Two paved paths wind their way through the trees: one featuring small alcoves depicting the Stations of the Cross, the other the Mysteries of the Rosary. Both paths lead to a wide pool with a statue of Our Lady in the middle. This statue, put in place in 1958 at the 100-year anniversary ofthe Lourdes apparitions, is a replica of the Our Lady statue in Lourdes. To the side are faucets where visitors collect blessed water. Just beyond the pool is a tiny stone chapel, the Corpus Cristi Chapel, and then the grotto replica itself, featuring statues of St. Bernadette and Our Lady, benches, and an altar with devotional candles and slips of paper for prayer intentions. A sign informs pilgrims of the special indulgences granted to anyone visiting the Grotto.

Finally, a short, steep path beyond the Grotto leads to the “Calvary Scene” in large metal statues. Surrounding the parking lot and throughout the walking paths, Catholic saints and other important figures are remembered with statues in alcove shrines. These shrines are dedicated to a number of figures, including Blessed John Paul II, St. Theresa of the Child Jesus, Padre Pio, St. Jude, St. Faustina, and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. There are also shrines to Our Lady, under various titles: Our Lady of Grace, Our Lady of Fatima, the Pieta, and the Virgin of the Poor (Banneux, Belgium).

This is a Catholic pilgrimage site, one fairly well-known in the mid-East region, and reports between 200,000 and 400,000 visitors every year. These numbers are estimates; currently, visitors are only counted informally when Grotto staff tally the number of cars in the parking lot. Summer weekends may draw 3,000 visitors, but significant numbers of visitors come year round. Some visitors even arrive during snow storms; the staff field complaints from would-be visitors when the Grotto closes during inclement weather. Visitors are racially and ethnically diverse: Hispanic, white non-Hispanic, and Asian (particularly Vietnamese) visitors are common, as are older adults, younger people, and families with children. Visitors come from around the United States, and not all are Catholic or even Christian.


The Grotto is a Catholic pilgrimage site and is on the grounds of Mt. St. Mary’s, a Catholic university. Beliefs espoused at the site align with official Church teachings.

The variety of statues attests to the broad range of devotions accommodated at the shrine. It is international in scope; statues of Our Lady of Lavang, Padre Pio, St. Faustina, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Our Lady of Medjugorje reflect the diversity of visitors to the Grotto.

Local Catholics speak of the guiding presence of Our Lady in general, and the importance of the campanile topped with its golden Our Lady in particular. For years, floodlights had lit the campanile in the evenings until Grotto staff decided to save money by turning off the lights. Soon after, a government agent contacted Mt. St. Mary’s University requesting that the lights be turned back on: pilots flying into nearby Camp David needed the illuminated campanile to guide them.


Visitors’ practices are common among devout Catholics: praying the Rosary, organizing Stations of the Cross and Rosary walks, praying, and attending Mass at the Glass Chapel. Sometimes people simply stroll around the site, and families bring picnic lunches to eat at the wooden picnic benches near the parking lot.

Common practices center around prayer, especially prayer for healing. Pilgrims purchase candles to leave at the Grotto cave, and it is common to see dozens of candles lit behind the altar. Slips of paper for prayer requests are also available; these are collected every week so that the priest performing Mass at the Glass Chapel can pray over them. Pilgrims pray for healings (emotional and physical) and for family members to return to the Church; often people return to the shrine to thank Our Lady for taking their prayers to Jesus. A few visitors have reported that they received an apparition of Our Lady or saw deceased family members at the site, though the Grotto neither keeps official records of these reports nor attempts to authenticate them.

In one unique story, a woman brought a bag of rare coins to the Grotto, worth about $40,000. She buried her bag of coins under some leaves near a statue, believing they would be safe there. A staff member discovered the bag, at first thinking that someone had made a large donation to the shrine. The owner of the rare coins, however, returned to retrieve them a few days later, explaining that she had not wanted to leave them at her house while she was away (Stern 2009).

The practice of collecting water from the site or even bathing in the pool, common in Lourdes, is also common in Emmitsburg. Pilgrims bring water bottles to collect spring water from the Emmitsburg site, and it is not uncommon for pilgrims to haul five-gallon water coolers with a hand truck. St. Bernadette’s Gift Shoppe sells empty bottles of various sizes for pilgrims who have forgotten their own; some of these bottles are shaped as St. Bernadette kneeling before Our Lady of Lourdes. It seems that pilgrims treat the water from the Emmitsburg site just as pilgrims treat Lourdes water, and some have attested to blessings associated with this water.

The Emmitsburg Grotto further commemorates the 1858 apparitions to St. Bernadette with special services, such as an Anointing of the Sick on February 11, the date of St. Bernadette’s first apparition. The Emmitsburg Grotto also displays a rock from the Lourdes apparition site prominently, in the rock face of its own Grotto. The gift shop, named for the Lourdes visionary, features an entire wall of shelves with items from Lourdes, including Lourdes water and products made with Lourdes water; statues, magnets, candles, and prayer cards of St. Bernadette and Our Lady of Lourdes; and books and films about the Lourdes apparitions.

Churches in the region organize pilgrimages to the Grotto. In 2014, two pilgrimages organized by a Vietnamese church will draw between 3,000 and 5,000 people. Some pilgrimage groups include a priest so that they can celebrate Mass during their trip on the grounds of the Grotto.

Pilgrims also donate money for benches in memory of loved ones or dedicate trees in their honor. Plaques indicate that windows (in the Corpus Christi Chapel), statues, benches, and trees have been dedicated by or to people all over the eastern seaboard, from Florida to New York.

The Grotto is currently overseeing Mt. St. Mary’s Cemetery and selling space in new columbaria.


Rev. John DuBois, a priest who came to the Emmitsburg area in the early 19 th century, is considered a leader in the founding of the Grotto. He is credited with erecting a cross at the current site of the “Calvary Scene,” though he did not found a shrine per se; indeed, it was not for another 50 years that St. Bernadette reported her visions of Our Lady. Fr. Simon Gabriel Bruté, along with other seminarians at Mt. St. Mary’s, cleared walking trails up the mountainside and attached crosses to trees so that visitors could hike to the area and pray (Lombardi n.d.).

Rev. John Waterson built the replica of the Lourdes grotto in Emmitsburg in 1875 (Mount Saint Mary’s University n.d.).

Msgr. Hugh J. Phillips, chaplain of the Grotto, is credited with many improvements to the site (Kelly 2004). He was pressured to expand the shrine and make it more accessible to visitors, reportedly by Amleto Cardinal Cicognani, former Apostolic delegate to the U.S., who visited the Grotto frequently. It was Cardinal Cicognani who arranged with Pope Paul VI in the 1950s for indulgences to be granted to pilgrims at the Emmitsburg Grotto.

Currently, leadership of the Grotto site falls into the hands of a board of directors, seminarians from Mt. St. Mary’s, and the Student Grotto Team, comprising students from Mt. St. Mary’s who lead Grotto tours and assist pilgrims.


The Grotto has faced some struggles developing and maintaining the site. In its early years, the Grotto was rugged; the site was inaccessible except for the hardiest individuals who could hike up the mountainside. Over the years (and especially in the past few decades) the site has been developed into an easily accessible place. Presently, safety is a primary concern for Grotto staff: walkways must be kept clear of ice and debris, and pavers must be kept level. The parking lot outside the visitors center has closed so that the area could be opened for pedestrians; it was too dangerous with visitors (including school children on field trips) walking across the parking lot while cars were parking. Visitors now park past St. Anthony’s Cemetery and walk the short distance to the visitor’s center. A donor has enabled the Grotto to buy golf carts to run a shuttle service for visitors who cannot walk the distance, or who need assistance accessing other areas of the site. All of these improvements require fundraising, so financial support has been a major hurdle over time. Since the time of Msgr. Phillips, there has been a tremendous amount of development at the site, and the Grotto relies on donations for improvements as well as upkeep.

An additional concern for Grotto Director Lori Stewart is to make visitors aware that the Grotto is affiliated with Mt. St. Mary’s University and its extraordinary history. Some visitors are unaware of this connection, and some students are unaware that the Grotto is so close to their campus or unwilling to hike the steep hillside to visit.

Finally, the Grotto is seeking a chaplain who will split time between the Grotto and the Mt. St. Mary’s campus. Currently, pilgrimage groups must bring a priest with them if they wish to celebrate Mass at the shrine during their visit. The Grotto would like to be able to organize retreats and pilgrimages rather than simply host groups that have organized their own retreats. Priests are more likely to be assigned to parishes rather than a site like the Grotto, however, so finding a chaplain has been a struggle.


Lombardi, Fr. Jack. (n.d.) The National Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes. Accessed Mar 17, 2014 from

Kelly, Jacques. 2004. “Monsignor Hugh J. Phillips, 97, Mount Saint Mary’s College President.” The Baltimore Sun , July 13. Accessed from on 3 April 2014.

Mt. St. Mary’s University. n.d. National Shrine Grotto of Lourdes. Accessed from on 17 March 2014.

Stern, Nicholas C. 2009. “Woman Leaves $40,000 in Valuable Coins at Grotto for Safekeeping.” The Frederick News Post, November 19. Accessed from on 10 April 2014.

Jill Krebs

Post Date:
30 March 2014