T H E G R O T T O
Open seasonally from May to September
Sundays 2pm to 4pm
In 1892, the first and largest Marian shrine was erected
in BC. The Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes was built on a
rock promontory in the upper reaches of St. Mary's Mission
and Residential School.
The architectural beauty of the Grotto was apparent to all,
and it was a beacon to travellers along the Fraser.
The Grotto was a six-sided cupola shrine with a silver
dome roof laden with stained glass skylights topped by a
white cross. The interior boasted intricate moulding and
unusual architecture, handmade with British Columbian
cedar. Three sides opened to reveal an altar and a statue
of the Virgin Mary.
This shrine was the dying wish of Bishop Louis J.
D'Herbomez, the first Bishop of the Catholic Order of the
Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Western Canada. He was one
of the driving forces behind the founding of St. Mary's
Mission, and he spent a lot of time at St.
Mary's Mission. He would often meditate, along with other
Oblate priests, on a small rock promontory which reminded
him of the Grotto of Our Lady Lourdes, a holy site in
France. In ill health, the Bishop was required to travel
to Rome in 1887. He feared that he might never return
to Mission and swore an oath that if he did return, he
would raise a shrine in honour of the Virgin Mary.
D'Herbomez did have the opportunity to return to St. Mary's
but, as he died within two years, he never lived to see his
dream realized. He left his dying wish in his last will and
testament, and placed orders for the project to be constructed
on the rocky ledge with the stream watering its base.
Two years after his death, orders to build the shrine were
found among his papers. Bishop Paul Durieu continued with
the vision of the Grotto and took over the construction
of the project. Many people sponsored the building of the
shrine, and one anonymous American donated $1000. The
Oblates consecrated the Grotto on June 25, 1892.
Many pilgrimages, religious celebrations and passion
plays took place at the Grotto. Thousands of people came
to the Grotto and camped. People came by canoe, pack-train,
wagon, and on foot. Masses of people were taught beside and
inside it. They were baptized, confirmed and married at the
site. It was also the site of the annual Easter Pilgrimage
with an estimated five to seven thousand people making the
pilgrimage each year.
For many years the Grotto was the focal point of St. Mary's
and Mission city, yet, after a time, the Grotto fell into
disuse. Pilgrimages became less frequent, and the upkeep
more laborious. Following the neglect of the shrine, it
was reopened and rededicated in 1954 with much pageantry.
The future bishop, Fr. Fergus O'Grady of the O.M.I,
conducted the afternoon mass with 5,000-6,000 people
present. The Virgin statue was honoured with a crown valued
at $7000 that was made of donated jewelry, wedding rings and
precious stones. Copper replaced the sliver dome for the event.
The passage of time had its toll on the Residential school.
The First Nations children were transferred to the public school
system, or to government-run residential schools. It was
evident that the era of residential schools, and the Oblates'
work with the First Nations was finally coming to an end.
In 1961, a new St. Mary's School was dedicated further east
and the old St. Mary's was officially closed. In 1965,
deterioration forced a demolition order for all of St.
Mary's buildings and the Grotto, the Fraser Valley
landmark, was demolished.
In the 1980s, the Mission Heritage Association (M.H.A) began plans
to save the historic lands of the Mission. For 10
years, the reconstruction of the Grotto was a priority
of the MHA and the Knights of Columbus. Eventually, through
hard work and community support, the dreams of many became
a reality, and in 1996 the building of the historical
structure began. The new Grotto had its opening ceremonies
on May 13, 1997.
Through all the changes the Grotto has undergone,
pilgrimages have continued and the Grotto continues to
stand as a majestic and elegant reminder of
Mission's historical beginnings.