The cool, fresh scent of dusk hung in the air. As birds chirped brightly, oblivious to the pending darkness, thousands of leaves gently rustled overhead from their perch in the vast canopy of Northwestern hardwoods. The soft sound of water burbling over slick rocks added more depth to the atmosphere, which threatened to overload the senses.
A lot of Catholic shrines and grottos are filled with ornate statuary and inspiring architecture. But there’s nothing quite like The Grotto in Portland, Ore., which reminds you of God’s abundant grace and love by surrounding you with the sights, smells and sounds of his glory.
The Grotto is The National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother, established by the Servite Friars in 1924. Spread over 62 acres at the base and along the top of a rocky, 100-foot cliff tucked into a modest section of northwest Portland, it’s an incredible oasis of beauty and serenity that attracts more than 250,000 tourists and pilgrims annually.
The base of the shrine contains its two most important features: Our Lady’s Grotto and the Chapel of Mary, Mother of the Human Race. Mossy stone steps, flanked by giant, leafy ferns, lead up to the railing fronting the spacious grotto carved into the cliff’s solid basalt base. You barely notice the grotto’s natural rock altar, because it’s dwarfed by three rocky pedestals rising from behind. A white marble replica of Michelangelo’s “Pietà” sits on the center pedestal; angels holding aloft brightly lit torches grace the side perches. During the outdoor Mass season, rows of dark green benches below the grotto are filled with pilgrims. Tonight, I’m glad there are only a handful of people present, as it adds to the serene atmosphere and allows a prayerful focus.
At the adjacent Chapel of Mary, crafted by rock quarried from the cliff, a wedding rehearsal is taking place. My husband and I quietly enter, admiring the light blue walls and ceiling that are expertly set off by colorful murals and warm, polished marble. But the chapel’s man-made beauty is nothing compared to the natural beauty of God’s world, brought inside through wide-open doors and windows.
The chapel’s most popular feature appeared to be a statue of St. Peregrine, patron saint of cancer patients, whose feast day is May 1. A small basket at its base was overflowing with prayer requests. On the opposite wall, a glittering banner celebrated 775 years of service by the Friar Servants of Mary in this, their anniversary year.
We paid $3.50 to take an elevator, enclosed in an old stone tower, up 110 feet to The Grotto’s even lusher upper level, which a sign says features 1,100 varieties of trees, gardens and plants to remind us of the presence of God in nature. No reminder was necessary, as we were enveloped in green.
We followed a winding, blacktop path lined with dense shrubs and bright pink and white begonias to a quaint, bright red chapel dedicated to St. Anne. The chapel marks the site where the first International Marian Congress in the U.S. was held in 1934. Portland wasn’t really a Catholic stronghold back then, and the event brought much publicity to the city and the sanctuary. According to old newspaper accounts, between 20,000 and 60,000 visitors turned out. Today, the chapel is a favorite stop for prospective brides.
The path next led us past the Servite Monastery, where a handful of priests and brothers reside, then through an innovative Peace Garden, themed according to the 15 mysteries of the Rosary. At the first stop, a circle of bright pink flowers bloomed near a bronze plaque depicting the five Joyful Mysteries, while a small stream of water flowed almost silently in the background. The thick carpet of blood-red flowers at the Sorrowful Mysteries was so brilliantly hued it almost hurt our eyes. At the Glorious Mysteries, a profusion of white flowers lifted our spirits, while the stream’s deeper, rushing waters made a cheerful noise in the background. A fourth site — representing the Luminous Mysteries proclaimed by Pope John Paul II in 2002 in celebration of the 25th year of his pontificate — was marked with multicolored blossoms and a waterfall.
Dusk was gathering, so we hurried past the Via Matris (Way of the Mother), depicted through beautifully carved wood statues, and some newer international features, such as a Polish chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Czestochowa.
Reaching a spot directly on top of the grotto, we saw a bronze statue of Our Sorrowful Mother, specially designed for the sanctuary and blessed in the Vatican by Pope Pius XI to commemorate the Servite Order’s 700th anniversary. The view of the Columbia River and the Mount St. Helens area was spectacular. But an even better panoramic view came from the adjacent Marilyn Moyer Meditation Chapel.
The chapel is a rather odd addition. Perched on the edge of the cliff, the contemporary polished granite building is filled with black leather chairs facing a wall of glass overlooking the Cascade Mountain Range. The only hint that it’s dedicated to motherhood is a nontraditional metal sculpture of a woman with a child. A depiction of Moyer on a side wall, accompanied by a quote from her — “Remember, always, the greatest gift you can give your children is parents who love each other.” — adds to the confusion.
But when you walk back outside into nature’s spectacular embrace, you can’t help but feel the presence of God and our Mother Mary.
Melanie Radzicki McManus writes from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.
The National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother
P.O. Box 20008
Portland, OR 97294-0008
Planning Your Visit
Open year-round, The Grotto features weekday noon Masses, plus a Saturday 8 a.m. Mass and Sunday Masses at 10 a.m. (year-round) and noon (May through October). A special St. Peregrine Mass is also offered at noon on the first Saturday of each month for those suffering from cancer, AIDS, serious illness or incurable disease.
Numerous popular celebrations are also held here during the year, such as the International Freedom Day Mass and the month-long Christmastime Festival of Lights, an ecumenical lighting and music festival. The Grotto is also home to an award-winning rose garden.
The Grotto is at NE 85th and Sandy Boulevard, about 5 minutes from Portland International Airport.