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Grotto turns 80 years old

Photos by Rachelle Klemme The grotto at St. Hubert's Catholic Church in Bluegrass is said to be the largest one in the St. Cloud Diocese.1 / 4
Vera Malone, Caren Winkels and Eileen Malone sit at the benches at the St. Hubert's grotto.2 / 4
Photos by Rachelle Klemme A parishioner found this rock with the cross shape already carved into it, possibly by early missionaries, when the grotto was being constructed. It was only fractured during the moving process. Unusually shaped rocks were placed in plain view on the outside while plainer ones made up the inside of the structure.3 / 4
A light bulb illuminates the statue of Mary after dark. The grotto, constructed by the Rev. John Van den Boer and St. Hubert's parishioners in 1931, is a replica of the Massabielle grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes.4 / 4

A Wadena County landmark has turned 80 years old this month.

The grotto at St. Hubert's Catholic Church was completed in Sept. 1931. It is one of the largest grottos in the Diocese of St. Cloud, if not the largest, being 35 feet long, 19 feet wide and 10 feet thick with a 6-foot foundation.

Parishioner Vera Malone said the grotto is a piece of art and the rocks were meticulously chosen.

A bell-shaped rock, a corkscrew-shaped rock, a rock with a cross carved onto it - they already looked that way when they were found by parishioners in the early 1930s.

Virginia creeper climbs up the back of the grotto - and so do Vacation Bible School kids.

Parishioners said that lots of people stop at the landmark to visit and take pictures. Some are locals, and some are travelers from the Twin Cities on their way to the lakes.

"Lots of people stop, and one lady stops and says the rosary weekly," Maryann Uselman said.

The grotto and church are in Bluegrass, the unincorporated town which is also home to Bethany Free Lutheran Church, Texaco memorabilia and a few houses.

"We were quite a big town when we had the creamery," Uselman said.

The grotto had taken many months to build and was the idea of the Rev. John Van Den Boer, a Crosier priest who had traveled around the world. It is a replica of the Massabielle grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes.

Benches in rocks face the grotto, and catechists and Vacation Bible School kids take lessons there.

"I take the second-graders over there and tell them the story about Our Lady of Lourdes and Saint Bernadette," Eileen Malone said.

"The children always remember [the benches] when they come for summer Vacation Bible School," Lois Schoon said, adding that it was the same when she was a kid and they would have lunch there and religion class.

The grotto has been the backdrop of photos for first communions, weddings, family events and church groups. Outdoor masses have been celebrated there for special events.

A prayer garden nearby was constructed more recently, and the church will have a dedication ceremony for it on Sunday, Sept. 11.

Vera Malone said that back when the grotto was under construction, parishioners donated rocks.

Uselman said Van Den Boer himself also went around the local fields and picked rocks.

"Father was very fussy, too, when he picked the rocks. They had to be just a certain rock. The bad ones went inside," Uselman said.

The plaque by the grotto lists Joseph and Anton Kern and Mike Youngbauer as the most active helpers on the project. Old newspaper clips show the project being built with a tripod and a ladder.

Schoon said her father remembered hauling the rocks with his father.

"This priest had had experience in building grottos before," Caren Winkels said.

"A passerby stopped, and the parish couldn't pay for the concrete," Vera Malone said. "And he offered to furnish the cement."

There used to be a rock wall around the area as well.

"I remember when I came to the parish 49 years ago, that was so impressive to me," Vera Malone said.

The wall was taken down in the early 1970s. Some rocks were taken to Park Rapids, others went to parishioners and others went into the new prayer garden.

Even the fence rocks had some unusual shapes.

"I have part of the rocks that were in the fence. And one is a perfect turkey except there's no head. Someday, I will put a head on that rock," Uselman said.

There also used to be a goldfish pond five feet deep, Schoon said.

"Eileen's husband went to religion class here too, and Father Van Roy had him and I don't know how many other altar servers, help him scoop the fish out of there. And they took them over to the parish house," she said.

The fish would weather the Minnesota winter in the parish house and then return to the pond in the spring.

Later on the concrete cracked, and that area was turned into a flower garden.