Sanctuary provides refuge for seekers of peace, consolation

The beautiful 62-acre National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother in Portland, Ore. — or the “the grotto” — recently celebrated the 90th anniversary of its founding by Servite friar Father Ambrose Mayer (1883-1971), and the 30th anniversary of its designation as a national shrine.

Dec. 30 marked the end of its magnificent Festival of Lights, which draws 60,000 visitors, engages the services of 900 volunteers and features a display of 1 million Christmas lights to celebrate the birth of Our Savior.

A ‘best-kept secret’

Visitors to the grotto can walk down paths through towering Pacific Northwestern fir trees and enjoy hundreds of works of Christian art, beautiful gardens, streams and ponds, and fabulous views of the city. The space is divided into two levels, the upper level 110 feet above the lower, accessible by elevator. Visitors pay $4.50 to ride the elevator to the upper level, which is the only fee required while visiting the grounds. The upper level is also home to a Servite monastery, whose five friars offer daily Mass, hear confessions and lead devotions.

“We’re one of Portland’s best-kept secrets, but we want to change that,” said Jane Tokito, director of development and marketing.

Miraculous beginnings

A Sacred Heart of Jesus statue offers a place for reflection. Photo courtesy of Jim Graves

Though the grotto was founded in 1923, it got its start much earlier. When Ambrose was a boy in Ontario, Canada, in 1892, his mother was in danger of death due to complications related to childbirth. His newborn sister was not expected to live either. The 9-year-old begged the Blessed Mother to intercede for their survival, and he promised to do a great work for her in return. Both mother and baby survived.

Ambrose soon joined the Servite friars and was sent to serve as a priest first in Vancouver, then in Portland. When a 62-acre site owned by the Union Pacific Railroad Company came up for sale, Father Ambrose realized how he could fulfill his promise to the Blessed Mother. He would buy it and build a shrine in her honor.

With the special apostolic blessing of Pope Pius XI, the property was purchased. In the aftermath of World War I and a worldwide flu epidemic that killed millions, Portland Archbishop Alexander Christie declared at its dedication: “Let this be a sanctuary of peace for all peoples of the Earth and surely in this day a sanctuary is needed. Torn with differences, strife and grief, the world needs sanctuary where the human spirit can seek peace and consolation.”

Central to the shrine is a high basalt rock wall, in which Father Ambrose had carved out a cave, or grotto, similar to the famous Lourdes grotto in France where Bernadette Soubirous had apparitions of the Blessed Mother in 1858. (St. Bernadette received much attention in the Catholic world at the time, as Pope Pius XI declared her blessed in 1925 and a saint in 1933).

Father Ambrose built an outdoor altar in front of the grotto and a large plaza with seating for the faithful.

The shrine saw many improvements in the following decades. In 1934, Pope Pius XI blessed a bronze statue of Our Sorrowful Mother, today one of the more prominent statues on the grounds, located above the outdoor altar. In 1955, The Chapel of Mary, Mother of the Human Race opened — a large traditional church on the lower level of the grounds.

In his footsteps

Today, Father Jack Topper is the executive director of the grotto. He has been a priest for 25 years, 23 of which he has served in his current position “following in the footsteps” of Father Ambrose.

Although he never knew Father Ambrose, he has spoken with many of his fellow Servites who did, and he has learned much about his predecessor. First, Father Ambrose had a tremendous devotion to the Blessed Mother. When the Servites first assigned him to his Portland parish, for example, he renamed it Assumption Parish in her honor (the parish has since closed and today is Assumption Village, a home for seniors). Additionally, in 1934, Father Ambrose was instrumental in bringing the first Marian Congress to Portland, which brought 60,000 visitors to Marian sanctuary.

A man of determination

Father Ambrose also was a man of determination. As Father Topper said:

“He was the type of person who does something first, then asks permission later. It could, in fact, get him into trouble.”

The purchase price of the grotto, for example, was $48,000 — far more than Father Ambrose could afford. However, he was able to negotiate a payment plan with Union Pacific, making a $3,000 down payment and then launching a successful nationwide appeal to pay for the remainder.

“Once he started something, he put his whole mind and heart into it,” Father Topper observed.

Today, the grotto draws 200,000 visitors per year, mostly Catholics. It is operated by a small staff; its $2 million annual budget is funded by elevator fees, gift shop sales, donations and special events. The Grotto welcomes weddings and can be used as a conference center. But the most important function of the site, Father Topper said, is the celebration of daily Mass at the outdoor chapel.

The grotto also hosts a popular monthly St. Peregrine Mass. Peregrine was a member of the Servite order and is a patron saint of those battling cancer. The sanctuary plays an important role for the Servite order itself, as men are invited to participate in retreats there to discern a vocation. Vocations have been down in the community, but Father Topper hopes the grotto can play a role in changing the situation.

The grotto offers seasonal activities, most notably the annual Christmas Festival of Lights, which kicks off after Thanksgiving. Highlights include colorful Christmas lights, choirs singing carols in the Chapel of Mary, a life-size Nativity scene and a petting zoo. Noticeably missing is Santa Claus, as the celebration is focused on the religious, rather than secular, aspects of Christmas. “It’s become a wonderful community event that has helped sustain us during the hard months of winter,” Tokito said.

Sanctuary troubles

Despite being “a place of solitude, peace and prayer,” as its website declares, the grotto has not been untouched by ugliness from the outside world. Last December, vandals slipped onto the grounds one evening and severely damaged two statues. One of St. Joseph holding child Jesus had both heads cut off; another of the Blessed Mother was toppled and also beheaded. Neither a motive nor the culprits have been found.

New fencing and security measures were added to better protect the property, as expressions of concern came in from the community.

“There was a huge outcry,” Tokito said. “Everyone was shocked. No one could believe that someone could destroy such beautiful things.”

A work in progress

Despite its already vast collection of Catholic art, new pieces are still being added to the space. The local Catholic Lithuanian community, for example, built a Lithuanian Wayside Shrine in 1963; more recently, an Our Lady of Czestochowa Polish Shrine, and a Dambana, or Filipino Faith Shrine, have been installed. Shrines from the Vietnamese and Hispanic cultures are in the works.

“I tell them to come to me with the plans, we’ll approve them and then raise the money, and we’ll build them,” Father Topper said.

While fundraising and maintenance remain an on-going challenge, Father Topper believes that Father Ambrose would approve of the work of the Servites, lay staff and volunteers of the grotto today.

“It continues to be a place where people can find comfort, support and compassion,” he said. “I think Father Ambrose would be delighted and pleased to see it, just as I’m delighted and pleased to be walking in his shoes.”

“I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to work here,” Tokito said. “Every day I’m in awe of the grotto’s beauty and serenity.”

Jim Graves writes from California.