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The Grotto in Portland, Oregon and a Young Boy's Promise to God

A Mother's Brush with Death

During the late 1800s, a woman in southern Ontario gave birth to a baby. But she encountered serious complications during the delivery, and it seemed as if neither she nor her child were going to survive the ordeal.

The woman also had an older son. Although he was very young, he had a close relationship with God. Hearing the news of his mother's impending demise, he dashed to a nearby church and began to storm Heaven with his prayers.

If his mother and her newborn could live, he promised he'd try to repay the favor.

It's often said that God hears the prayers of children. Much to everyone's surprise, the mother recovered and her baby pulled through as well.


A Son Keeps His Promise

Later, as a young adult, this boy joined the Servites, a religious order founded in Florence in the 13th century, and he became known as Father Ambrose Mayer.

The Servites had established a mission in Portland, Oregon and Father Ambrose was sent there. He became the very first Servite pastor in the city. It's said that he never forgot the vow he made to God in his youth, as he still planned to do something important for the Catholic Church.

People who knew Father Ambrose were also aware of his plans to build a large monument to Mary, the Mother of Jesus. He spent years talking about it, until, finally, the opportunity presented itself.

Father Ambrose became aware of a parcel of land that was up for sale, a former rock quarry owned by a railroad company. The asking price of $48,000. However, this was much more than he could afford. But he was able to scrape together a few thousand dollars for a down payment. The remainder of the money was raised through an appeal that spread throughout the United States and even to the Vatican.

Faithful Catholics from far and wide sent in donations to make Father Ambrose's vision become a reality. Even Pope Pius XI helped, by bestowing a Papal Blessing on all of the donors.

How to Find The Grotto

Large Pieta Sculpture

Construction of the Grotto

Work on the shrine began in the fall of 1923, beginning with the site's most spectacular outdoor feature. This is an altar carved into the side of a 110-high rock wall. Stones built outside this cave-like setting support twin statues of angels holding torches. In the center is a sculpture of Our Blessed Mother holding the body of Christ when He was taken from the cross, a replica of Michaelangelo's Pieta.

The initial stages of The Grotto were completed in a remarkably short period of time. By the spring of 1924, the first Mass was held there, offered by the Archbishop of Portland, Alexander Christie.

Through the years, various other projects were finished. There is now an indoor church known as the Chapel of Mary on the first level, a short walk from the outdoor altar. This was built in the 1950s.

A modern elevator was also added that transports visitors to the top of the basalt cliff, where they have an expansive view of the grotto grounds, as well as of Greater Portland and the snow-capped Mt. Hood, which dominates the city skyline.

There is also a gift shop and a conference center on the premises. Visitors can also walk along the many wooded trails, lined with statues of Christ and various Catholic saints.

In 1983, The Grotto took on the title of the National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother, a fitting name given the prominence of the replica of the outdoor Pieta.

The Portland sanctuary, however, is not to be confused with Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica & National Shrine in Chicago. There is also a separate Sorrowful Mother Shrine in Ohio.


Virtual Visit to The Grotto

Rose Scented Rosary

The Grotto Today

The Grotto is still run by the Servites, the order Father Ambrose joined.

Driving through the back streets on the east side of Portland, filled with unpretentious, low-lying homes, it's hard to imagine that this neighborhood contains a shrine that attracts more than 250,000 people each year. (The neighborhood was modest, but it seemed very safe.)

During a recent trip to Portland, my husband and I noticed signs on a main road pointing to the Grotto, and we decided to follow them.

It was a Saturday morning in July, and we pulled into a nearly empty parking lot. A short walk past a large gift shop brought us to the outdoor cathedral. Tall Pacific Northwest fir trees provided a lot of shade. This was a place where you could sit and spend a lot of time.

The inside of the Chapel of Mary is beautiful. Some of the visitors there that day stopped in to pray. A religious sister passed in and out of the chapel arranging flowers. She refreshed a vase of fresh-cut stems near a statue of Our Blessed Mother in the front of the chapel. And she put fresh roses near a statue of Saint Therese the Little Flower located in the rear.


Special Events at The Grotto

We saw The Grotto during a relatively slow time, on a weekend morning when there were few visitors. Certain events throughout the year, though, attract crowds.

One is the annual Festival of Lights, which begins the Friday after Thanksgiving and runs for most of the Christmas season, until December 30. This is when a half million lights are strung up in and around the outdoor altar. During this time, there are also dozens and dozens of musical performances and puppet shows and a petting zoo for the children who come to the sanctuary.

International Freedom Sunday is a relatively new tradition at The Grotto. This is when the area's large Vietnamese Catholic community commemorate their religious freedom in America, and it takes place on the Sunday that falls closest to the Fourth of July. The First Freedom Sunday took place in 1976, after large numbers of Vietnamese came to America. Other ethnic groups that have also struggled to practice their faith also participate in this event.


If You're Going to the Grotto

The best time to visit is during the summer, which, in Portland, usually isn't unbearably hot. The Pacific Northwest has an extended fall, winter and spring rainy season.

Plan to spend a couple of hours there, as there are many miles of walking trails and benches near the cliff where you can sit. The elevator runs during hours of operation, which are 9 am to 8:30 pm during the summer. The shrine closes earlier in the fall and winter months.

It costs a few dollars per person to take the elevator to the summit of the altar. However, there is no charge for parking and admission to The Grotto.

Sunday Masses are offered in the outdoor cathedral at 10 am and 12 noon. Weekday Masses are at 12 pm and Saturday Masses are at 8 am.

A special Mass dedicated to Saint Peregrine, one of the patron saints of cancer patients, takes place on the First Saturday of every month at 12 pm. A first-class relic is this saint is available for veneration.


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