KEY WEST, Florida – On May 25, 1922, Sister Louise Gabriel watched as the grotto she had commissioned in Key West honoring Our Lady of Lourdes was dedicated, standing as a tangible assurance that so long as the structure stood, the island would be protected from hurricanes.

A member of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, that have roots stretching back more than 100 years serving at Key West’s Minor Basilica of Saint Mary, Star of the Sea, Gabriel had witnessed the pain, devastation and heartache caused to Key West residents during powerful hurricanes in 1909, 1911 and 1919.

It was the grief and destruction left by these storms that prompted her to decline her family’s offer of a trip to Rome for her 25th anniversary as a nun, and instead to spend the time building a grotto dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes, who appeared to Saint Bernadette Soubirous in 1858, identifying herself as the Immaculate Conception, which has since become a well-known Marian title.

A high-school teacher, Gabriel assigned her students the task of gathering all the coral rock they could find on their own property and throughout the island. It was from this coral rock that the grotto, and three kneeling stations in front of it, were built.

A bust of Sister Louise Gabriel in the Our Lady of Lourdes grotto in Key West, Florida. (Credit: Elise Harris/Crux.)

When the grotto was dedicated in 1922, Gabriel made the promise that so long as the grotto stood, Key West would never again endure the full brunt of a hurricane.

To date, that promise has held true.

While the island has sustained damage, “We have not suffered from complete devastation ever since,” said Father John Baker, pastor of Saint Mary Star of the Sea basilica.

As a result, many islanders and “conchs,” referring to those born and raised on the island, have turned to the grotto as a place of hope and solace, and this extends beyond the Catholic community.

Speaking to Crux, Baker said that in his 13 years serving at the parish, he has seen many, believers and non-believers alike, come to the grotto to seek protection, especially when hurricanes are in the forecast.

“During all the hurricanes that have passed since I’ve been here, everybody I know comes to the grotto, Catholic and not. Some say to me, ‘I don’t believe in God, but I believe in the grotto.’ I say, ‘Whatever your higher power is, that’s fine!’ It’s theirs. It’s beautiful,” he said.

Baker credited this to the spirit with which Gabriel built the grotto, saying “it’s not a place that dictates faith, but that invites faith.”

Though many grotto visitors are not Catholic or are nonbelievers, they have the sense that “something is going on, so they come.”

“She didn’t define the spirituality, she invited faith to come, calm down and to realize that God or some higher power is with us and that somehow we’re going to get through this,” Baker said speaking of Gabriel.

This faith, he said, became palpably visible during Hurricane Irma in September 2017. Though the rest of the Florida Keys were ravaged, Key West was largely spared any serious or irreparable damage.

One of the few people to remain on the island while most left due to the mandatory evacuation order that went out a few days before the storm, Baker said that he spent the majority of his time hanging around the grotto.

The day before Irma hit, “the amount of people that came were incredible,” he said, adding that “It’s not just Catholics, it’s everybody. As I was walking around the streets, people would stop me and say, I went to the grotto today and lit a candle!”

“It’s something very dear to this parish,” he said, recalling that when the 2018 hurricane preparedness instructions were sent out by the parish administration, he was told by the parish chancellor for administrative affairs and temporal matters that he could “laugh or cry” about the length of the 25-page document, but was reminded that “you have the grotto. We’re depending on your prayers for all of us in the archdiocese.”

The grotto was important in the petition to get the church the title of a basilica, which it received Feb. 11, 2012, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. The dedication Mass happened three months later on May 31, the Feast of the Visitation.

As a show of just how strong a point of reference the grotto has become for the island of Key West as a whole, it is one of the official stops on the “Conch Train Tour,” which takes tourists past historical landmarks in the city.

“People come back to see it, they come back to see the property because it’s something quite distinct,” Baker said, noting that both day and night, the basilica and the grotto receive visitors, including policemen who come to pray at the grotto in the evenings.

“It’s beautiful. It’s all so unassuming, but it’s sincere. I just treasure it as a feature within our church,” Baker said, adding that in a chaotic world, the grotto “brings a level of consolation and peace. It attracts people, and it’s beautiful to behold.”

Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it

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