By Diana von Glahn
When Ambrose Mayer’s mother was close to death after giving birth to his little sister, he begged God to spare her life. He promised that if she survived, he would someday do something great for the Church.
Fortunately, for him and for us, his mother lived.
And the “something great”? Anyone who has seen — in person or even online — The Grotto, will agree that he did just that.
Born in Canada, Ambrose joined the Friar Servants of Mary in 1918. The religious order of priests also known as the Servite Order was founded in Florence, Italy, in the middle of the 13th century by seven men who sought to lead lives of penance and prayer. The order’s goal is to sanctify humanity through devotion to the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, under her title of Mother of Sorrows. They wear black habits and follow the Rule of St. Augustine. Their most well-known saint is St. Peregrine, patron saint of those with cancer.
As the first Servite pastor of the Archdiocese of Portland, Father Ambrose kept his eyes and heart open for an opportunity to fulfill his promise and give glory to God and his Mother, Mary. When he spotted a “for sale” sign next to an unkempt patch of wilderness previously used by a railroad as a quarry, he knew the land was perfect. The asking price was $48,000, which in today’s currency would be about $672,000 — no small amount. Father Ambrose only had $3,000, but he was no stranger to miracles and he trusted in God. Like the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, Father Ambrose offered his “fish,” which was surprisingly accepted as a down payment. He still had to raise the other $45,000, and when he set out to do it, God gave him a helping hand. Pope Pius XI wrote a letter — in his own handwriting — giving a special apostolic blessing to those who, “in any way or measure, show their good will and assist in erecting the Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother in Portland.”
The money came, just like the fish and bread.
Work began on The Grotto in September 1923, and the first Mass was celebrated less than a year later, on May 29, 1924. Three thousand people came to the Mass, during which Archbishop Alexander Christie offered this prayer:
“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.”
Since then, millions have come to this beautiful spot, designated a national sanctuary in 1983.
The Grotto is a beautiful mixture of man-made and God-made beauty; a natural shrine that gives glory to God using decorations that he made. Paths weave among lush gardens, more than 100 statues of saints and religious artwork, ponds, groves of trees, and astonishing views of the Columbia River Valley, the Cascades and Mount St. Helens. There is also a gift shop, conference center, visitor center, and monastery (for the Servites, of course).
The 62-acre grounds, open year-round, are split into two levels, divided by the northern face of Rocky Butte, a 110-foot basalt (volcanic rock) cliff. The lower level features the crowning glory that gives this shrine its name: Our Lady’s Grotto, carved into the side of the cliff and housing a replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta. Here, the Servite priests celebrate Sunday Mass during the temperate months, May through September. They also have Eucharistic Adoration here and lead other prayers created by the Servite Order, such as the Rosary to Our Lady of Sorrows.
The Chapel of Mary, Mother of the Human Race, is found on the plaza level, and this is where daily Mass and early Sunday Masses are held. Concerts and weddings often take place here and on the plaza. Built in 1955, the chapel is made out of a mixture of marble, sandstone, and woodwork. Carrara marble statues and mosaics decorate the chapel, featuring images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Seven Holy Founders of the Servite Order, the Servite saints Sts. Peregrine, Juliana Falconieri, and Philip Benizi, and others. A 25-foot stained glass window depicts the resurrection of Christ.
Also on the plaza level are the Stations of the Cross, purchased by Father Ambrose in 1930. Fourteen bronze bas-reliefs weave along a circular path and tell the story of Jesus’ passion — from his condemnation by Pilate to his removal from the cross.
Pilgrims access the upper level via an elevator for a small fee. There they find a picturesque red chapel dedicated to St. Anne, the mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus. Originally built to house the Blessed Sacrament, today it features paintings of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus from around the world.
The Meditation Chapel, built atop the northern face of Rocky Butte, is made of polished granite with lots of glass windows that afford stunning views of Mount St. Helens. Another replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta provides pilgrims with an opportunity to meditate on Mary’s sorrows as she holds her dead Son.
The Peace Garden spans one-and-a-half acres, and features bronze plaques that depict the mysteries of Rosary, including the luminous mysteries. Large ponds and a flowing stream provide a mesmerizing soundtrack as pilgrims pray and meditate upon the lives, joys, sorrows, and glories of Jesus and Mary.
Another devotion of the Servite Fathers is the Via Matris, or Way of Our Sorrowful Mother. Like the Via Dolorosa, the Via Matris follows the Virgin Mary through her Seven Sorrows — the prophesy of Simeon, the flight into Egypt, the loss of Jesus for three days, meeting Jesus as he carried his cross, standing beneath the cross, witnessing his sacred body removed from the cross, and his burial.
Other shrines dot the gardens, including shrines to Our Lady of Czestochowa and a Lithuanian shrine dedicated to those who fought for that country’s freedom. The Dambana, or Filipino Faith Shrine, includes statues of three saints loved by the Filipino community: Santo Niño de Cebu, the Virgin Mary, and San Lorenzo Ruiz, the first canonized Filipino saint. The Grotto is also building a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, and Our Lady of La Vang, a Vietnamese shrine.
Aside from the beautiful prayer spaces available at The Grotto, many events hosted year-round provide great opportunities to evangelize. (Hint! Hint! Bring your non-Catholic friends!) Among them is the Christmas Festival of Lights that the Grotto says is the largest Christmas choral festival in the world, with 150 performances from area choirs, more than 1 million lights, an animal petting zoo, caroling, and more.
For more information about The Grotto in Portland, Oregon, visit TheGrotto.org. Another sacred site in Portland, Oregon is St. Mary’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
Learn more about making pilgrimages close to home and find more sacred sites like this one here.