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LOWELL -- It's not actually Lourdes, France, or the praetorium in Jerusalem, or the hill of Golgotha. But looking up at the scale replica of Our Lady of Lourdes' grotto, lined with a "scala sancta" and Stations of the Cross, and topped with a crucifix that can be seen from a distance, one could easily imagine being in any of those places.
The grotto and its statuary are set between the Merrimack River and the former Franco-American School, which closed in 2016. The school building was recently purchased by Brian McGowan of TMI Property Management and Development. While the building is being converted into condominiums, McGowan agreed to preserve and restore the grotto, which will be open to the public in perpetuity.
The history of the grotto is intertwined with that of the Franco-American School, which was originally founded as the Franco-American Orphanage in 1908. It was established by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and run by the Sisters of Charity of Quebec. The school took in children from as far away as New York.
"A lot of what was built here was as a result of the French Catholic children that were here," Kevin Roy said on May 1, walking around the grounds of the grotto and its nearby statuary.
The grotto was constructed in 1911 by Jean-Baptiste Morin, a local contractor who directed the construction of an additional brick building for the orphanage. Water from the miraculous spring at Lourdes and two stones extracted from the grotto were added to the replica, along with a one-of-a-kind statue of Our Lady of Purgatory that was given to the orphanage.
In 1912, more additions were made: 14 statues representing the Stations of the Cross, and a replica of the "scala sancta," the steps Jesus descended as he carried his cross out of the praetorium in Jerusalem. A wooden crucifix was also added, but the cross was later replaced with a metal one. In the 1940s, houses were constructed for the Stations of the Cross to protect the statues from weathering; the houses were redone in 2012.
Even into the 21st century, new features were added. When a local family lost their son, Brian Kinney, in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, they donated black marble engravings of the Seven Sorrows of Mary leading up to the cross.
Sister Jane Holland of the Sisters of Charity of Quebec spent 50 years working at the Franco-American School, first as a teacher and then as principal.
"The grotto was always very special to me, and I noticed that a lot of people came and they found solace. For a lot of people, this was Church," she said.
Cecile Provencher, a member of the grotto restoration committee who has lived in Lowell for most of her life, recalled how important the grotto was when she was growing up. She attended St. Jean Baptiste Church down the street, which has since closed. People used to come in processions carrying a statue of Mary to the grotto.
"It's important that it remains, not only for the history but for the people to come that still are bringing their grandchildren here and so forth," she said.
Groups from different churches and communities still come to pray at the grotto. Many people come to pray at the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. The grotto has even attracted a handful of famous visitors over the years, including author Jack Kerouac, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, and singer Bob Dylan.
Sister Jane recalled one man who came to the grotto immediately after losing his son to suicide. The bereaved father said he found "a lot of solace," like Mary was taking care of him.
"I really wanted this to remain, because this was very, very important to me," Sister Jane said.
Roy had a hand in restoring the grotto's statuary in recent years. He works for the sheriff's department but paints and repairs statues as a hobby. His children attended the Franco-American School, and his wife convinced him to volunteer his services to repair and repaint the statues of the Way of the Cross for the 100th anniversary of their installation. He also repainted the statue of Christ for the crucifix.
Roy visited Lourdes, France, himself in 2005.
"Knowing what it really is like, this has special meaning for myself and my family," he said.
According to Roy, two minor miracles have taken place as a result of people praying to Our Lady of Lourdes or to St. Bernadette at the Lowell grotto. There used to be "ex voto" markers that people could leave there after their prayers were answered.
Roy said it is "a place of tranquility," not only for Catholics but for Christians of other denominations, as well as people of other religions -- or no religion at all.
"Some of them who have never known religion or had a faith, they come here and they find something that helps them through their trials and tribulations," he said.
Roy noted that often when churches or religious institutions close, "it really hurts the parishioners and faithful." In contrast, the decision to maintain the grotto alongside the condos is "a nice way that shows a religious setting can coexist with a secular setting."
After the sale of the school, a restoration committee was formed and began fundraising efforts to restore the grotto. They also received a grant from the Coalition for a Better Acre for this purpose.
Some changes have already been made: the Stations of the Cross were moved behind the grotto, and the grotto itself has been enlarged. The faux rock formation includes a pulpit that can be used for Masses and other gatherings.
Some work still remains to be done, however. Statues of Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Bernadette will be restored and reinstalled. There will be a fountain like the spring that St. Bernadette dug in the Lourdes grotto. The committee plans to have donors' names listed in a bronze book and on stones of a nearby wall with a fountain.
The committee members said they hope the restoration will be done by September, and that they can hold a blessing and rededication of the beloved grotto.
More information about the grotto's history and options for supporting its restoration and maintenance can be found at stationsandgrottofund.org.