Keva Hoffmann Boardman —
I mentioned in an article that I needed to look into the history and creation of the grottos at our city’s lovely Catholic churches. A grotto is a small mountain – El Cerrito or Die Grotte – which is created from concrete or stone and includes openings or niches that are reminiscent of caves. In New Braunfels, parishioner-craftsman built them of locally-sourced stone. They are unique to each church family and are an extremely precious part of our city’s public art offerings.
The oldest grotto is found behind SSts. Peter & Paul Catholic Church. After 45 members of his church had died in the 1918 influenza epidemic, Father Wack led the congregation in a vow to build a replica of the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes if there were no more deaths. No other parishioner died from the flu.
Father Wack went to France to get specifications for the grotto. J.J. Scholz from Nebraska was hired for $10 per day to do the work, but he was helped by many parishioners. Farmers hauled limestone rocks from the Wenzel, Friesenhahn and Schumann ranches. Flint stones were gathered from nearby yards. All the stone was carefully washed before taken to the construction site where work began in April 1921. The grotto was finished that June and the dedication, on the Feast day of SSts. Peter and Paul, was a grand and beautiful event.
The vine-covered honey-combed limestone grotto features an arched opening where a stone altar holds a cross and prayer candles. Up and to the right, a life-size statue of Our Lady of Lourdes stands at the top of a “waterfall” that empties into a small pool. At the edge of the pool kneels a likeness of St. Bernadette. Above the Virgin is a white rose bush and a flying dove. The grotto illustrates the story of a 14-year-old French peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, who saw visions of the Virgin at a natural grotto near Lourdes in 1858. On one of these occasions, Bernadette was to dig in the ground and drink from a spring. This spring formed a pool that became the site of pilgrimage and miraculous healing. SSts. Peter & Paul’s grotto includes the elements of water, faith and healing making it a perfect congregational offering of thanks and a stunning memorial to their faith during the flu epidemic.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church began their grotto in 1949 and dedicated it on Sept 15, 1951. The most naturalistic of the three, it truly looks like a little mountain. Parishioners were sent “up the hill” to find stones and rocks to create El Cerrito. The grotto rises up in a wonderful, jumbled pile of stone: honey-combed and cretaceous limestone rocks, fossils of shells and even broken bits of cave formations. The rocks, varying greatly in size, shape and color, form two arched openings. The top niche, painted like a bright blue, cloud-streaked sky, holds Our Lady of Guadalupe. To her right kneels Juan Diego with his apron, or tilma, full of roses. The bottom niche is much larger and the rock altar and walls within are painted a clean white. A crucifix is surrounded by statuettes of the Virgin, a bust of Christ, and St. Jude Thaddaeus. Thornless prickly pear, barrel and ocotillo are a few of the cacti that grow out of the rocks. Vivid pink and yellow artificial roses frame both niches with a riot of color.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is the story of the Virgin Mary’s appearance in the New World. It is viewed as an event of vast significance and a powerful reminder that God accepts all peoples. A poor Indian, Juan Diego, first saw the apparition of the Virgin on a hill near Mexico City. She was dressed like an Aztec princess and was surrounded by a radiant cloud. She spoke to him in his own language asking him to tell the bishop to build a chapel on the hillside. The bishop needed proof. When Juan next met the Virgin, she filled his tilma with roses to take to the unbelieving bishop. On December 12, 1531, Juan unrolled his tilma to show the roses to the bishop and a miracle occurred — as the roses fell to the ground an image of the Virgin was left on the robe.
Holy Family Catholic Church added the largest NB grotto to their grounds in 1982. Dedicated by Archbishop Flores, this native limestone rock structure is semicircular in plan with terraces and a central arched niche. In this niche, Our Lady of Guadalupe floats effortlessly amongst the clouds of a blue sky with an angel at her feet. She is surrounded by an aureola or radiant cloud of glory just as in Juan Diego’s vision. Juan appears kneeling to her right cradling his apron full of roses. Real and artificial plants and flowers adorn the terraces and the small wooden altar where fresh flowers are often left at the feet of a statuette of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A large stand of thornless prickly pear and another of agave blend the structure gently into its surroundings. Positioned in a bench-filled enclosure, the grotto is utilized by the congregation for feast days and special celebrations.
Each grotto was created as an act of faith by their parishioners and still plays an important role in festivals and events throughout the church year. Please check the church websites for their calendars and more information regarding opportunities to participate and enjoy the culture, traditions and pageantry of celebrations around these fantastic and marvelous works of art.
- The History of Saints Peter and Paul Church and Parish; Furhmann, Monica
- NB Zeitung, NB Herald, NB Herald-Zeitung newspaper collections — Sophienburg Museum & Archives
- “Reflections” Oral History #1054 – Ayala, Adelio, and Acevedo, Rey
- Phone interviews with staff of the following:
- Holy Family Catholic Church www.hfnb.org
- Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church https://olphnb.org
- SSts. Peter & Paul Catholic Church https://sppnb.org