St. Coletta renews its Lourdes grotto Print E-mail
Around the Diocese
Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017 -- 12:00 AM
st coletta fatima
St. Coletta in Jefferson recently restored its grotto dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes originally built in 1912. (Contributed photos)

JEFFERSON -- On the peak of the hill overlooking the original St. Coletta of Wisconsin campus, just below the St. Coletta cemetery in Jefferson, lays a replica rock grotto depicting the Virgin Mary appearing before a girl,

The appearance of the Virgin Mary to St. Bernadette at Lourdes, France, is of course known throughout the world, an inspiration to the faithful. The original shrine is a place of both healing and enlightenment and follows a story that puts a small farm village on the map of spiritual travel.

The story of Lourdes

It began very simply. On February 11, 1858, a 14-year-old French girl named Bernadette Soubirous was collecting firewood outside her village in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains.

As she walked past an outcropping of rock, Bernadette saw a vision of a woman dressed in white and glowing with light standing in an opening in the rock above her. The first vision was without words.

The place where Bernadette had her visions was known by the villagers as Massabielle, or the old rock. Over the course of weeks, the lady continued to appear, and Bernadette prayed the Rosary in front of her.

During the third apparition, Bernadette asked the woman for her name. “It is not necessary,” she replied, “I do not promise to make you happy in this world but in the other. Would you be kind enough to come here for a fortnight?”

Many appearances

The fortnight requested of Bernadette stretched into five months, with the lady appearing again and again.

During the ninth apparition, the lady instructed Bernadette to dig. She astonished the hundreds of people present when a spring of water appeared. A few days later, even more were astonished when a woman immersed her injured arm into the water and was miraculously healed.

The lady continued to give Bernadette messages, saying that she wanted people to repent and do penance, and that priests were to build a chapel at the grotto and lead processions there.

During the 16th apparition, she finally gave Bernadette her identity: “I am the Immaculate Conception,” she said.

The Church of the Immaculate Conception was constructed in 1871. Since then, thousands of replicas of the shrine at Lourdes have been built, ranging from simple to elaborate.

Shrine at St. Coletta

The history of the shrine at St. Coletta starts in 1912, when it was built by the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi. The Sisters were ahead of their time as the shrine incorporated electrical lighting during construction, both to the Virgin Mary’s halo and to the shrine itself.

The rock wall was constructed of field stone from the St. Coletta farm fields. The resourceful Sisters constructed the halo using a farm lamp. They surrounded the grotto with an iron fence and gate from a firm in Chicago.

The replica served as the original, drawing the faithful to pray for the last 104 years.

The years were not without their toll and by last year, the grotto was in tough shape. None of the lights worked and the vegetation was overgrown. Worse, the fence and gate disappeared into the ground.

Restoring the grotto

Enter the leaders and staff of St. Coletta, who have made it their goal to restore much of the history of the organization in the past few years.

As Ted Behncke, president of St. Coletta of Wisconsin, related, “We started on the grotto in April of 2016 as part of the cemetery restoration.”

He said, “It had suffered from years of neglect, the worst being the protective fence. Over the years it had sunk into the ground and much of the lower rail was under the dirt.”

It took two weeks to remove the fence from its rotted foundation. The fence was then taken to Arrow Metals in Jefferson, where they sand blasted all four sections and the gate.

Arrow provided much of the needed metal but did not want to take on the project as the fence was curved and complicated. As a result, St. Coletta staff remade about six inches of rusted lower rail and pickets from scratch.

John Anhalt, a local parishioner, led a group of volunteers to dig out where the fence went and paint the fence. The halo that adorned the Virgin Mary statue was rewired. The assembly was cleaned and repainted and a new light fixture with an LED bulb installed in the halo.

Lamps were also included to light up the grotto at night. It can easily be seen from Hwy. 18 traveling east from Jefferson or south on CH Y where it meets Hwy. 18.

Rosaries left on fence

In May of 2017, Fr. Tom Coyle, pastor of t St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Jefferson, led a prayer service and Rosary at the shrine with parishioners from St. Lawrence Church in Jefferson.

Those in attendance left their Rosaries on the fence as a commitment to return. More faithful have added theirs. Today over 70 Rosaries adorn the fence.

John Anhalt, in a continuing connection, has provided a bench and Rosaries for new visitors.

“Maintaining our Catholic heritage and keeping a firm grasp on our Franciscan roots is imperative to the mission of St. Coletta and the hundreds of individuals we serve. We are proud we could do this for the community we serve and thank everyone who had a hand in making this happen,” said Behncke.

Visiting the grotto

If you are interested in visiting the grotto, stop in to N4637 CR Y, Jefferson, and ask for Robin Baker, or call her at 920-674-8331.

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