Our Mother (Lady) of Sorrows Grotto

Visionary artist and contractor William Lightner built the Our Mother of Sorrows Grotto complex on the Mount Mercy University campus between 1929 and 1941. As of 2015, the Grotto is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

About the Grotto

William H. Lightner’s Our Mother of Sorrows Grotto complex has anchored Mount Mercy University as a treasured and unique feature of the campus for nearly 100 years. It is a rare, remaining example of visionary architecture and the Midwestern grotto tradition of the early 20th century.

Lightner used exceptional visual design and building technique, as well as highly skilled stone inlay and Italian mosaic artistry, to create a large lagoon surrounded by five major structures—all dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Lightner was a respected, yet self-taught architect, artist, and builder responsible for other major buildings in Eastern Iowa. However, this multi-structure Grotto site became his life's work and an obsession.

From its beginning, the Grotto was a haven for reflection and meditation as well as a favorite location for college and community ceremonies. It became a neighborhood gathering place and a picturesque setting for weddings and pageants, including the annual May Day Celebration. The Grotto attracted as many as 700 visitors in one day during the 1946 Iowa State Centennial.

After Lightner’s death in 1968 there was little funding for the Sisters of Mercy to maintain the site and it fell into disrepair. A campaign to finance conservation began in the 1990's, and in 2001 a preservation grant from the Smithsonian Institution’s American Heritage Preservation Project, Save Outdoor Sculpture (SOS!), began the restoration process. Major grants from the Iowa Arts Council in 2011 and The National Endowment for the Arts ARTWORKS program helped complete the process in 2014, and as of 2015 the Grotto is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Contemporary Photos

     Archival Photos      

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

History of the Grotto

View Grotto image archive


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 President's National Standardization Committee for the Hoover 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, 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 wall-shrine contained a niche 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 shrine's dedication by Archbishop Beckman in 1941.

On his quest to build the shrine, Lightner travelled more than 40,000 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 $40,000. 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.


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.

restored-2001-web.jpgBy the mid 70’s, however, the international art community began to recognize the value of a number of visionary environments built by untrained artists. 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 Institution's American Preservation Heritage Millennium Initiative, as well as a Linn County Historic Preservation grant. By matching these funds with donations from alumni and university 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.

Time and weather will continue to take their toll on the Grotto. We take our jobs as stewards of this important site seriously. Private funding is the primary source of support for the university's continued efforts in preserving the Grotto's historic and celebrated structures. As history tells, the preservation efforts have earned the support of many national organizations and countless alumni who have contributed their time and efforts to the ongoing cultivation and protection of the Grotto.

You may make a gift online or mail your contribution to the Office of Development and Alumni Relations, Attn: Grotto, 1330 Elmhurst Drive NE, Cedar Rapids, IA 52402-4797. For additional information, call us at 319-368-6468. Indicate Grotto in your gift designation.

Contributions may be designated to the Grotto Fund, or the J.J. Feld Grotto Reflecting Pool Maintenance Endowed Fund.

Thank you! Your support ensures this historic treasure lives on for future generations.

This most recent restoration of William Lightner’s Our Mother of Sorrow’s Grotto was supported by a $30,000 matching grant from the National Endowment For the Arts ARTWORKS program in 2012–2014, and by an Iowa Arts Council Major Organization $10,000 matching grant in 2011. The 2001 conservation project was funded by an S.O.S. (Save Outdoor Sculpture) from the Smithsonian Institution’s American Heritage Preservation Millennium Initiative.

Those funds were matched in part by cash and in kind contributions from the following organizations and some very special people.

  • A legacy fund from the late Ortha Harstead
  • The Greater Cedar Rapids Foundation
  • The Linn County Board of Supervisors, Preservation Society
  • The J.J. Feld Grotto Reflecting Pond Maintenance Endowed Fund
  • Mount Mercy University
  • Don Howlett and Lisa Stone of Preservation Services, Inc. Neshkoro, Wisconsin, Rinderknecht Construction Company
  • The Sisters of Mercy
  • The Friends of the Grotto
  • The MMU Art Club
  • The Cedar Valley Rock and Mineral Society (with special thanks to Dale Stout, Tom Whitlatch, and Marvin Houg)
  • The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art
  • CSPS Legion Arts, Cedar Rapids,
  • Technical Specialty Systems, Inc.
  • Iowa Scaffolding, Inc.
  • Webber Stone CO
  • Fairfield Greenhouses
  • Rick Edleman, master builder
  • David Van Allen
  • Dennis Jennings
  • Lyell Henry
  • Matt Butler, web design
  • Bob Naujoks
  • Kennedy, Arthur, and Erskine Schools in Cedar Rapids
  • And many many generous individuals

Historical research was provided by:

  • The Lightner Family
  • The late Sister Augustine Roth, RSM
  • Mount Mercy archival librarians Kristy Raine and Marilyn Murphy
  • Mount Mercy alumni Dennis Jennings, Jonathan Berger, Matthew Butler, Robert Mars, Kathleen Braun, and Marlena Hinzman

Original films on William Lighnter and The Grotto

William Lightner: Visionary, created by Dennis Jennings with Matthew Butler as editor, 30 minutes, 2003.

Rare Visions and Roadside Attractions: America’s Breadbasket edition, Kansas City Public Television, 20 minutes, 2004 (available for sale online)

The Mount Mercy College Grotto Restoration, 2001, Cedar Rapids Community Schools, 2001.

Our Lady of Sorrows Grotto: A collection of archival film footage,
A film by MMU alum Jeremiah Zentz, 2003 (located in the MMU Busse Library Archives)

America the Beautiful Fund. Old Glory: A Pictorial Report on the Grass Roots History Movement and the First Hometown History Primer. Warner Publications, 1973.

Beal, Art. The Nature of Art. n.p., 1980. Poems by Art Beal, drawings by Patricia Richards of Art Beal and his environment, Nitt Witt Ridge.

Beardsley, John. Gardens of Revelation: Environments by Visionary Artists. New York: Abbeville Press, c1995.

Beljon, J. J. Bouwmeesterters van morgen. Amsterdam, Pantoskoop, Wetenschappelijke Uitgeverij N.V., 1964. Sculpture, experimental architecture, Watts Towers.

Bishop, Robert. American Folk Sculpture. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1974.

Brackman, Barbara. Backyard Visionaries: Grassroots Art in the Midwest. Lawrence, Kan. : University Press of Kansas. c1999.

Cerny, Charlene, Suzanne Seriff (Ed.), John Bigelow Taylor. Recycled Re-Seen: Folk Art from the Global Scrap Heap. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Challenge of Folk Materials for New Jersey's Museums. Papers presented at a conference 7 April 1984, Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J. Museums Council of New Jersey, 1986. Includes a paper by Mary Ann Demos about Matteo Radoslovich's environment.

Dewhurst, C. Kurt, Betty MacDowell. and Marsha MacDowell. Religious Folk Art in America: Reflections of Faith. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1983.

Dinsmoor, S. P. Pictorial History of The Cabin Home in Garden of Eden. Lucas, Kansas: privately printed, reprint of original edition, n.d.

Drace, Charley. The Saga of Outlaw Howard: The Story of Jesse Howard. Self-published, n.d. Compilation of articles "as appeared in April & May issues of the Westminster Columns," in brochure form.

Ebert, Wolfgang M. Home Sweet DomelTrdume vom Wohnen. Frankfurt: Verlag Dieter Fricke, 1981.

Ehrmann, Gilles. Les Inspires et Leurs Demeures. Paris: Editions du Temps, 1962. Environments in Europe; great photos.

Folklife Annual 1985. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, 1985. Articles on Finster and Rodia.

Greenfield, Verni. Making Do, or Making Art: A Study of American Recycling. UMI Research Press, 1986, 1984. Includes a chapter about Tressa Prisbrey sand her bottle village. An earlier version was Ms. Greenfield's Ph.D. dissertation, UCLA.

Grotto and Shrines. Dickeyville, Wisconsin: Dickeyville Grotto, n.d. Pamphlet about the Dickeyville shrine and grotto.

Hall, Michael and Eugene Metcalf. 1986. Ties That Bind: Folk Art in Contemporary American Culture (exhibition catalog). Cincinnati, Ohio: The Contemporary Arts Center.

Headley, Gwyn and Wim Meulenkamp. Follies: A National Trust Guide. London: Jonathan Cape, 1986.

... Follies, Grottoes and Garden Buildings. London: Arum, 1999.

Hall, Michael D. The Artist Outsider: Creativity and the Boundaries. Washington : Smithsonian Institution Press. c1994

Higgs, Jim. The Wizards Eye: Visions of American Resourcefulness. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1978.

Hoopes, Owen Dean."This Is My Sign—Garden of Eden": A Brief History and Personal Observations on the Unique Works of a Man and His Dream. Lucas Publishing Co., 1972. Includes drawings by the author of S. P. Dinsmooi s Garden of Eden.

Jakovsky, Anatole. Damonen and Wunder-4Demons & Wonders Koln: Verlag M. DuMont Schauberg, 1963.

Jean, Marcel. The History of Surrealist Painting. New York: Grove Press, 1960. Includes Ferdinand Cheval's Palais Ideal.

Jones, Barbara. Follies and Grottoes. London: Constable, 1953.

Kemp, Kathy. Revelations: Alabama's Visionary Folk Artists. Birmingham, Ala. : Crane Hill Publishers. 1994.

Laffal, Ken. Vivolo and His Wooden Children. Essex, CT: Gallery Press, 1976.

Leedskalnin, Edward. A Book in Every Home: Containing Three Subjects: Ed's Sweet Sixteen, Domestic and Political Views. Homestead, Florida: self-published, n.d. Leedskalnin's personal views and a few photos of his environment, Coral Castle.

Leedskalnin, Edward. Magnetic Current. Miami, Florida: self-published, 1945. Magnetic theories of the creator of Coral Castle, Florida.

Lipman, Jean. Provocative Parallels: Naive Early Americansllnternational Sophisticates. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1975.

Longhauser, Elsa Weiner. Self Taught Artists of the 20th Century: An American Anthology. Chronicle Books, 1998.

Mahon, Miles Marion. Poems. n.p., 1978. Includes photos of his environment.

Maiuri, Amedeo. The Phlegraean Fields: from Virgil's Tomb to the Grotto of the Cumaean Sibyl. Rome: Instituto Poligrafico dello Stato, Libreria dello Stato, 1969.

Maizels, John. Nek Chand Shows the Way. Watford ; New York : Raw Vision. [1997]

Maisels, John. Raw Creation: Outsider Art and Beyond. Phaidon Press, 1996.

Manley, Roger and  Mark Sloan. Self-Made Worlds: Visionary Folk Art Environments.  New York: Aperture, 1997.

Maresca, Frank. American Self-Taught: Paintings and Drawings by Outsider. New York : Knopf. 1993.

Marling, Karal Ann. The Colossus of Roads: Myth & Symbol Along the American Highway. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Marshall, Howard W., ed. Missouri Artist Jesse Howard, With a Contemplation On Idiosyncratic Art. University of Missouri-Columbia, 1983. Includes a good bibliography of Jesse Howard.

Miller, Naomi. Heavenly Caves: Reflections On the Garden Grotto. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1982.

Moses, Kathy. Outsider Art in the South.  Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 1999.

Niles, Susan A. Dickeyville Grotto The Vision of  Father Mathias Wernerus. Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 1999.

Porteous, Crichton. The Well-Dressing Guide. Derby: Derbyshire Countryside Ltd., 1978. Color photos.

Preston, Eileen. Curious England. Haverfordwest Merlin's Bridge: Shire Publications, 1977, 1985.

Prisbrey, Tressa. Grandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village. privately printed, n.d., (several editions, various titles). With photographs.

Rajer, Anton & Style, Christine. Public Sculpture in Wisconsin: An Atlas of Outdoor Monuments, Memorials and Masterpieces in the Badger State. Madison, WI : SOS, Save Outdoor Sculpture, 1999.

Ragon, Michel. La Fabuloserie: Art Hors-Les-Normes. Paris: 1983.

Rosenak, Chuck. Contemporary American Folk Art: A Collector's Guide. Abbeville Press, 1996.

Rhodes, Colin. Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives. New York, N.Y. : Thames & Hudson. 2000.

Rhodes, Richard C. The Inland Ground, An Evocation of the American Middle West. New York, Atheneum, 1970. Includes a chapter on Jesse Howard.

Rigan, Otto B. From the Earth Up: The Art and Vision of James Hubbell. New York: McGraw Hill, 1979.

Rudofsky, Bernard. Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture. London: Academy Editions, 1964.

Rutkowski, Bogdan & Nowicki, Kryzsztof. The Psychro Cave, and Other Sacred Grottoes in Crete. Warswaw: Art and Archeology, 1996.

Sellen, Betty Carol, Cynthia J. Johanson. Self-taught, Outsider and Folk Art: A Guide to American Artists, Locations and Resources. McFarland & Company, 1999.

... Outsider, Self-Taught and Folk Art: Annotated Bibliography: Publications and Films of the 20th Century. Jefferson, NC : McFarland, 2001.

... 20th Century American Folk, Self Taught, and Outsider Art.  New York : Neal-Schuman. c1993.

Stone, Lisa. Sacred Spaces and Other Places. Chicago, IL : School of the Art Institute of Chicago. c1993.

Thevoz, Michel. LArt Brut. Skira, 1980. French paper edition. English hardback ed. Skira/Rizzoli, 1976.

Tuchman, Maurice. Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art. Los Angeles, Calif. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. c1992

Ward, Daniel Franklin, ed. Personal Places: Perspectives on Informal Art Environments. Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1984.

World's Only Corn Palace. Mitchell, South Dakota and FMB Museum of Pioneer Life. Goin Co., 1971.

Yelen, Alice Rae. Passionate visions of the American South. [New Orleans] : New Orleans Museum of Art. c1993.

Visionary artists possess both an ability to view the world in a unique way and an intense evangelical need to communicate that vision to others. They must believe strongly in their art since it takes a dedicated and courageous maker to break away from established artistic norms and challenge conventions. They must also be able to handle the criticism of a public that often reacts when its expectations are challenged.

Visionary artists are often self-taught and work outside the local and national art communities, often without mainstream recognition during their lifetimes. Some have been affected by war or other traumatic experiences into isolated consciousness or inspired by religious experience. It is often an enigmatic eccentricity that gives them the courage to pursue their convictions and the individuality to create what French artist/philosopher Jean Dubuffet first labeled Art Brut.

In short, visionary art begins by listening to the inner voices of the soul, and often may not even be thought of as 'art' by its creator. The artist’s background, available mediums, and philosophy are evidenced in the final product, which reflects a lifetime of experiences, according to art historian Roger Manley. In the United States visionary art has been understood more broadly than in Europe and has often been popularly conflated with folk art, ethnic art, and many other gestures produced by various non academically trained groups and individuals, according to Michael D. Hall and Eugene W. Metcalf, Jr., eds., in The Artist Outsider: Creativity and the Boundaries of Culture.

Grotto May Day Celebration Highlights

A cherished 30-year tradition, the Annual May Day Celebration was held at the historic Our Mother of Sorrows Grotto on the Mount Mercy campus between 1928 and 1958. The annual celebration included the crowning of a May Queen, music, Isadora Duncan-style dance performances, tableaux re-enactments of historic scenes, and many photo opportunities.

In 2012–2014, the Mount Mercy University Art Club, Music Department, choir and band members re-enacted this tradition in all its glory. Art Students presented a 1920's Isadora Duncan scarf dance, May Pole dancing, and door prizes, while the choir sang songs from that era. The entire Mound View neighborhood and Cedar Rapids community members were invited to attend. Guests were treated to historic and geological tours of the William Lightner’s historic Grotto. There was free popcorn and punch for all. This event was sponsored in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts ARTWORKS program.

View event photos

Community Outreach

Arthur and Erskine Elementary Schools

As part of our National Endowment for the Arts ARTWORKS Grant outreach, Mount Mercy introduced fourth graders at two Cedar Rapids Elementary Schools, Arthur and Erskine, to William Lightner’s Our Mother of Sorrows Grotto. In workshops, students toured the Grotto and heard a brief history of the site. MMU art students shared stories from the Sisters of Mercy and from people in the neighborhood, then invited the fourth graders to create drawings of the Grotto. The results are amazingly varied and full of creative inspiration, just like the Grotto itself.

These Grotto events were sponsored, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts ARTWORKS program.

See work


Kennedy High School Photo Club

Kennedy High School Art Instructor Patty Walsh and Mount Mercy Emeritus Assistant Professor David Van Allen worked with the Kennedy High School Photo Club to generate a series of award winning images of the Grotto. Contest winners include Jessica Dorland, Katie Wolfe, Mallory Schatz, Marissa Moore.

See work