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 ninety years now. It is a rare remaining example of visionary architecture and the Midwestern grotto tradition of the early twentieth 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’s 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 seven hundred 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 1990s 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 in 2015 the Grotto will be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.