A golden statue of Mary sits atop the Pangborn Memorial Campanile at the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Emmitsburg, Md. Courtesy photo

A Place of Saints, Pilgrims

A look at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes

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Nestled in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains is the town of Emmitsburg — a bastion of American Catholicism. The sleepy mountain town is about a two-hour drive north of Washington, D.C., and just south of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania — located in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Emmitsburg is home of Mount St. Mary’s University, founded in 1808 by Sulpician Father Jean DuBois from France. He’d go on to be the third bishop of New York — the first of more than 50 bishops to have been connected to the university’s seminary. Emmitsburg was also home to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton; it’s where she founded the first free school for girls in the United States and where her sacred relics are enshrined in a basilica dedicated to her memory.

One of the lesser-known aspects of the Catholic culture that pervades Emmitsburg is the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. Its founding goes back to the early days of Catholicism’s presence in Maryland, just before the founding of the university. It’s told that Father DuBois was brought to the current site of the grotto-shrine in 1805, where he made a cross of twigs in the woods to symbolize God’s blessing on the work he was commencing in the Maryland frontier.

A chapel was built there — the place where St. Elizabeth Ann Seton attended Sunday Mass — and the holy place in the woods was cared for in its infancy by, among others, her spiritual director, Father Simon Brute. That priest, who was described by President John Quincy Adams as “the most learned man of his day in America,” became the founding bishop of Indiana’s first diocese and is himself a candidate for sainthood today.

But all of this was before the 1858 apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to the young peasant girl, St. Bernadette Soubirous, in southwest France. Lourdes, of course, is one of the most visited places of pilgrimage in the world. Less than two decades after those miraculous visions experienced by St. Bernadette, the holy place in the woods at Emmitsburg began to take on new relevance and meaning.

Shrine’s History

The French Sulpicians at Mount St. Mary’s had been uniquely affected by the visions at Lourdes, as had all Catholics throughout France and the world-at-large. Preceded by a series of less formal structures, the Emmitsburg grotto began to take its present form in 1875. Over the years, it was enlarged and beautified by university students and seminarians. It was proclaimed a public oratory by Baltimore’s Cardinal Lawrence Shehan in 1965. Today the grotto operates under the auspices of Mount St. Mary’s University, designated as a national shrine by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.


Our Lady of Lourdes

On Feb. 11, the Church celebrates an optional memorial dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes. It was on that day in 1858 that St. Bernadette Soubirous reported seeing the first of 18 visions of a woman dressed in white in a grotto near Lourdes, France. During the visitor’s last appearance, St. Bernadette asked the woman who she was and was told, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” A basilica was dedicated at the site in 1901, and it has been estimated that as many as 6 million pilgrims visit Lourdes annually.

Source: Encyclopedia of Mary (OSV)


Situated near the shrine’s entrance is a log cabin with significance in American Catholic history. Called the Hughes Cabin, it was home of John Hughes in 1819 while he was a student at the seminary and keeper of the surrounding grounds. Eventually appointed the first archbishop of New York, Hughes was responsible for commencing construction of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

Another notable figure who tended to the gardens and grounds of the grotto while a seminarian at Mount St. Mary’s is Venerable Father Stanley Rother. Ordained from the seminary’s class of 1963 for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, Father Rother was killed in Guatemala in 1981. In December, the Vatican recognized him as the first U.S. born martyr, paving the way for his beatification.

Visitors to the grotto are reminded of some of the shrine’s history via markers erected near the parking lot. Yet the shrine’s relevance remains dedicated to participation in the devotional life of the Church, particularly in fostering devotion to the Blessed Mother.

A Land of Mary

A dominant feature of the grotto is an immense tower atop of which sits a golden statue of Mary. It’s actually a bell tower, called the Pangborn Memorial Campanile. Seen for miles around, it reminds pilgrims and passersby that they’re in the land of Mary — as indeed, Maryland was established in colonial America as a haven for Catholics.

But there’s also spiritual significance to this statue-tower monument of faith. It’s said that the tower serves as a beacon or landmark of sorts for the U.S. Secret Service since it is in close proximity to the presidential retreat Camp David. And yet, Mary is a beacon for our lives of faith — a landmark indicating the way to Christ. When we take our cue from Mary and encounter her along life’s way, we can be sure that we’re traveling the path to Jesus.

And so, the hallmark of the grotto-shrine is the cave replica of the grotto at Lourdes. Its popularity may be seen in the boxes filled with written prayer intentions, in addition to the numerous lit votive candles or the host of pilgrims obtaining blessed water from a font nearby.

In 2007, Bishop Jacques Perrier of Lourdes visited Emmitsburg during the 150th anniversary year of the apparitions that occurred in his own diocese. He gifted the shrine with a stone from the very grotto where Mary appeared to St. Bernadette.

Other Attractions

A main feature of the shrine is the Corpus Christi Chapel. Built in 1905 on the spot where Father DuBois first arrived, the chapel gets its name from the Blessed Sacrament reserved for prayer and adoration by pilgrims. Mass is celebrated on Saturdays and Sundays at noon, with the Sacrament of Reconciliation available starting an hour before.

Inside the chapel is a statue of Our Lady Help of Christians — one of the many pieces of sacred art on the grounds, in addition to a variety of other outdoor statues and shrines dedicated to Mary and a number of saints. The shrine grounds also contains a cemetery and columbarium. Graves in the cemetery include descendants of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton as well as a host of members of the Mount St. Mary’s University and Seminary community.

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The National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes is open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Visitors will be sure to encounter a place of prayer and pilgrimage, steeped in history and alive with devotion and piety — all in a cradle of American Catholicism.

Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV’s The Catholic Answer magazine and a graduate of The Catholic University of America. He resides in Indiana where he teaches high school theology.

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