The Mysterious Case of the Grotto

A cynical private eye and former mercenary named Joe Adams calls to tell me that while walking his Marine-trained pit bull past the old St. Mary of the Angels Convent grounds on Bellevue Avenue, he took note of the construction site.

Joe Adams takes note of everything. He trained rebels in Myanmar, regularly turns down offers to do contract hits, and once left a child’s kidnapper at the top of a volcano. I wait for the bombshell—maybe a body was dug up by mistake?

No, what he saw was a field of rubble and, at the corner, a perfectly intact grotto, a pure white statue of Jesus sheltered by a little roof, a pile of boulders behind him, a bench and path in front.

Adams chatted with a few of the construction workers. Their mandate was to tear down the convent and build a surface parking lot behind St. Mary’s Hospital. But they refused to touch the grotto.

The last nun had left the monastery in 2011, whisked away to a retirement facility in Bridgeton. The vast, buff brick building had been emptied of its stained glass and relics. Graceful arches and turrets were now smashed to smithereens. Locals wailed about paving paradise, and architectural historian Chris Naffziger protested the loss, quoting Luke 21:6: “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.

Except, it turns out, the grotto.

“There ain’t no way,” the workers told Adams. “If push comes to shove and it’s mandatory, they can go fuck themselves.”

(Piety takes many forms.)

On his next walk, Adams stopped at the bodega across the street, the In and Out Market. Owner Jason Layton said the project manager had stopped in before demolition started, checking with area businesses to make sure no one would object. At mention of the grotto, the project manager reportedly groaned: “We have had three different companies bid on the job and all three said they would not tear down that grotto.”

Adams, a man who will do just about anything if given sufficient reason, was charmed by this stubborn refusal to touch a sacred site. So am I. These guys cannot all be devout churchgoers. You could call their caution superstitious, I guess; it is detached from any particular role or involvement. Yet it feels even more meaningful than a personal, faith-driven response. It feels like an instinctive reverence.

Dr. Leigh Eric Schmidt, Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor at Washington University’s Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, is not sure there is an instinctive, universal response to the holy. “Certain scholars are more likely to think that—Rudolf Otto, Mircea Eliade, Huston Smith,” he says (and, stubborn, I jot the names) but he pays more attention to the local, cultural, historic influences. Without talking to the construction workers themselves, he points out, we cannot begin to understand why they would refuse to do what they are, in fact, regularly paid to do: demolish. “There are all kinds of examples of things being deconsecrated and torn down or repurposed. You would first take away the things considered the holiest….”

In this case, that would be the statue of Jesus. But without it, there would be nothing to repurpose but some rocks. The grotto is a singular expression, not easily converted.

“It’s hard to know how to get rid of things—that’s true for any object that is highly charged and laden with memory and multiple meaningful associations,” Schmidt continues. “In this case, the workers don’t have specific memories, but maybe there’s a kind of fear of desecration. And there is always a certain discomfort in taking something that was sacred and disposing of it. You can’t just throw it in a Dumpster.”

Indeed. Layton told me that when the monastery was being emptied, there was a broken statue of Mother Teresa on the fourth floor and a Dumpster waiting down below. “The guy thought, ‘Oh, man, do I throw Mother Teresa out the window or walk her down four flights?’” He stood there, paralyzed with indecision, though no one was watching and he could have chucked her graven plaster image out the window without thinking twice.

I want to believe that by sensing the power in something sacred, we share, at some level too deep to articulate, in the ideas it represents. Back home, I thumb through an old copy of Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane until I reach this: “A religious symbol conveys its message even if it is no longer consciously understood in every part. For a symbol speaks to the whole human being and not only to the intelligence.”

I hope the workers did not refuse because they grew up in a predominantly Catholic city. I hope they would have hesitated if asked to tear down a Buddhist shrine, too. Even if the universality of sacred symbols is a pipe dream, such sites all have a quietness about them, an acknowledgment of something larger, deeper, more important, and less fathomable than our usual bustle.

Besides, all they can hope to do is nod toward a higher truth, not own it. That is why the fuss over which tradition’s holiday symbols are allowed to stand in the town square has never made sense to me—put them all up! Let there be a rich texture to our spiritual expressions, a whole array of words and signs, since none of them can capture it all anyway.

The grotto will endure as a place to think, pray, worry about a diagnosis, ache for a loved one, savor their recovery, appreciate the healthcare workers’ sacrifices. Before they ran a hospital, the Franciscan Sisters of Mary went into the homes of the sick, carrying little bells to warn others of contagion as they nursed immigrants suffering with smallpox, typhoid, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and cholera. When they built a hospital, they connected it to a convent with an underground tunnel so the two hundred nuns could quickly reach the wards in the dark of night or during an ice storm.

Today, like all U.S. Catholic hospitals, St. Mary’s has drifted toward the secular. Governance is corporate. Patients and staff come from all religious traditions, or perhaps from none. But I cannot imagine any of them minding the presence of a statue, its saviors a bunch of construction workers.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.