"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
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 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.
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.
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 Institution's American Preservation Heritage Millennium Initiative, as well as a Linn County Historic Preservation grant. By matching these funds with donations from alumnae 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: 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.
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.
Historical research was provided by:
Original films on William Lighnter and The Grotto: (see links above)
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. (see link above)
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)