Grotto History

The Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows

"Every now and then one man creates with his own hands and mind, something unusual, beautiful and expressive. Just such a construction is William Lightner’s (Our Mother of Sorrows) grotto and shrine begun in 1929 and today donated to all who will see it. Mount Mercy has a great artist treasure." — Cedar Rapids Gazette, August 10, 1941



Building the Grotto: William Lightner (1885 - 1968)

In 1929 William Lightner's company was building Warde Hall at Mount Mercy Academy. During that time, Lightner felt called to create an extraordinary grotto environment to express his personal artistic vision and religious faith. What began in 1929 as a single structure built as homage to his conversion to Catholicism and a response to a request by the Sisters of Mercy, became a twelve-year multi-structure obsession. Perhaps one reason for the high interest in public artworks on the Mount Mercy University grounds relates to both the process and product of Lightner’s twelve-year odyssey designing and constructing the Our Mother (Lady) of Sorrows Grotto and park.

A professional boxer and skilled carpenter early in life, Lightner went on to become a partner in his family’s contracting business, Lightner Brothers Construction and later president of the Master Builders of Iowa and the Iowa representative on the National Standardization Committee for the Calvin Coolidge administration. Though Lightner also designed and built other significant structures in Eastern Iowa including Warde Hall on the Mount Mercy Campus (1923), St. Patrick’s Church in Cedar Rapids (recently severely damaged in the 2008 flood), and Lamoni’s first bank, the Our Mother (Lady) of Sorrows Grotto was LIghtner’s life’s work and his artistic masterpiece.

Lightner began by building the two arched entryways. These were followed by a bridge surrounded by a lagoon, a ten column structure representing the ten commandments, and a monumental central shrine, containing mosaics of the seven sorrow's of Christ's mother. The bridge was intended to represent his personal crossing to faith. The ten-column structure was the centerpiece of the lagoon with each of the commandments inscribed on the base in mosaic. The huge central shrine was a grotto cave holding a white marble statue of the Virgin Mary made from Carrara marble by the Italian sculptor Marcello Rebechini. The statue, now reinstalled on the site was originally installed in 1949 after the shrines’ dedication by Archbishop Beckman in 1941.

On his quest to build the shrine, Lightner travelled more than forty thousand miles throughout the United States and Mexico looking for building materials. He contacted suppliers around the world in search of more than three-hundred unusual varieties of stones used in creating the structures. Over twelve-hundred tons of stones were used, at a personal cost of exceeding forty-thousand dollars. The four structures still standing reveal Lightner's visionary sense of design, as well as providing a multitude of geological specimens, including coral from Hawaii, petrified wood, lapidolite, white quartz, blue azurite, and rose quartz from Colorado and the Black Hills of South Dakota.

View an online video documentary of Lightner's work.
View a historic look at the Grotto and reconstruction

A Tradition of Visionary Environments

William Lightner’s Our Mother (Lady) of Sorrows Grotto was created in the tradition of such famed visionary art environments as Father Paul Dobberstein’s Grotto of The  Redemption in West Bend, Iowa and Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles. Lightner was one of a handful of Midwestern artists who continued a centuries-old European tradition of creating environments for contemplation in and of nature (i.e. Tivoli Gardens).  His is one of a few large grottos built to "transmit the prevailing spiritual beliefs in an atmosphere of supernatural beauty, a place for the spirit to be moved and stored."  (Lisa Stone, Sacred Spaces and Other Places, The Art Inst. of Chicago Press, '93).  Stone also states in "Concrete Visions: The Midwestern Grotto Environment," Image File ('90), that the re-introduction in the early 20th century of concrete technology and availability of bagged concrete profoundly affected the landscape of the Midwest in two ways:  the development of the skyscraper, in the form of grain elevators, and its sacred counterpart the Midwestern grotto environment, built as a result of a growing popular interest in the grotto form. In her doctoral dissertation curator Susannah Koerber discusses Lightner's important connections to Father Paul Dobberstein's Grotto of The Redemption begun in 1889 and considered one most significant visionary environments worldwide.  Lightner consulted Dobberstein about construction techniques and later Father Wernerus, builder of the other major grotto in the Midwest; The Holy Ghost Shrine in Dickeyville, Wisconsin consulted Lightner for help in design and concrete recipes.

Preserving the Grotto

By the late 60’s, the Grotto and Lagoon had fallen into ruin as neither the college nor the Sisters (now dwindling in number) had the finances to maintain the site. The lagoon was drained in 1970. Erosion, lack of funding and vandalism made it necessary to level the grotto's main structure in 1974.

By the mid 70’s, however, the international art community began to recognize the value of a number of visionary environments built by untrained artist. Professor Jane Gilmor came to the College in 1974 and immediately took an interest in Lightner’s work and it’s relationship to this form of architecture unique to the upper Midwest. After years of outreach and connecting with the stewards of other such sites, Gilmor got a 2001 S.O.S. (Save Outdoor Sculpture) grant from the Smithsonian Institutions Preservation Heritage millennium initiative, as well as a Linn County Historic Preservation grant. By matching these funds with donations from alumnae and College friends Mount Mercy was able to address the most serious structural problems. This began a community-based effort lead by Gilmor and Conservator Anton Rajer to make the most needed repairs to the structures and to build community and national awareness of Lightner’s work of art and it’s importance both culturally as well as academically.

As brutal winters and summers take their toll, it has come time to assess damages over the past ten years and to set up a new long-term plan for regular cleaning and restoration. In 2010, the Art Club and the University hired Lisa Stone and Don Howlett of Preservation Services, Inc., nationally known visionary environment conservation experts working with the Kohler Foundation in Wisconsin, to do a complete Preservation Plan for the Grotto. The first stage of the plan will be completed in summer 2011 to coincide with the completion of the new University Center.

Special Thanks

Thanks to the many donors and volunteers, too numerous to mention here, who contributed to saving this important historic site. Their support is testament to the enduring legacy of William Lightner and his Our Mother of Sorrows Grotto. Special thanks for their donations of time, talent and treasure to Grotto preservation is given to the following groups:

  • A legacy fund from the late Ortha Harstad, whose father worked with Lightner on the Grotto
  • The Friends of Our Mother of Sorrows Grotto
  • The Sisters of Mercy and Mount Mercy University
  • An S.O.S. (Save Outdoor Sculpture) Grant from the Smithsonian Institution’s Heritage Preservation Program
  • The Linn County Board of Supervisors Preservation Society
  • The Greater Cedar Rapids Foundation
  • The Cedar Rapids Rock Club
  • Rinderknecht Construction
  • Webber Stone Co.
  • Fairfield Greenhouses
  • Special thanks also to the Lightner family for their cooperation and support.

Historical research was provided by:

  • The late Sister Augustine Roth, RSM
  • Mount Mercy librarian Kristy Raine
  • Mount Mercy alumni Kathleen Braun, Marlena Hinzman and Robert Marrs

Original research and films on the Grotto:

  • Mount Mercy alum Dennis Jennings, for his original research in making the film Visionary, a biography of William Lightner
  • Kansas City Public Television’s Rare Visions and Roadside Attractions series
  • Kim O’Meara and the Cedar Rapids School System
  • Donations from The Cedar Rapids Rock Club and Rinderknecht Construction were invaluable. Major contributions of labor and materials were given by Webber Stone Co, and Fairfield Greenhouses.