War Memorial Grotto served as a core of the College
By Dana Nolfe
Near the heart of the Providence College campus sits the War Memorial Grotto of Our Lady of the Rosary. Originally built where St. Dominic Chapel is located today, the War Memorial Grotto was constructed to honor the 69 Providence College students who died fighting in World War II.
According to the dedication program handed out at the May 9, 1948, opening ceremony, the grotto was “no vain testimonial with an appeal solely to the living. Ours is a real tribute to the dead, a source of continued help to them.” It was hoped that this open-air sanctuary would bring the living “genuine comfort, because of the assurance that their dead will never be neglected.”
The grotto, which cost more than $100,000, was constructed through the generosity of students, alumni, and friends of the College. More than three-quarters of the cost was covered by donations of dollars and construction material. Raffles were held, and direct appeals were made to cover the cost of items that would be used in the grotto, including a crucifix ($500), a sanctuary lamp ($750), and 1,800 air-foam kneeling cushions that could be donated at a cost of $12.50 each.
Construction took less than a year to complete. The dedication program states that the grotto was original in design and that there was “nothing quite like it in this country and it is not a copy of any of the more famous shrines of Europe.” Careful thought was put into having it face away from the street to ensure quiet contemplation and privacy. Its location was chosen so that it was removed from the center of activity and was suitable for prayer and devotion.
Built using fieldstone from Providence and flagstone from western Pennsylvania, the structure also incorporated more than 400 yards of cement. There were bronze altar appointments, such as vases and candlesticks, of significant size so that they were in proportion to the large size of the grotto. For example, the monstrance — also known as the ostensorium — that was used for benediction with the Most Blessed Sacrament was 44 inches tall. It was partially made of gold and contained 25 diamonds, which were donated by alumni, parents, and friends.
Black granite from Sweden was turned into “Honor Roll” panels that listed the names of the deceased. Additional tablets listing benefactors who donated more than $100 were placed around the amphitheater. These tablets were titled “Names Immortal.”
A Wurlitzer organ provided musical accompaniment for services. Since it was used outdoors, a special insulated box was constructed so that it was protected from the damp and cold, but it also had the ability to be moved indoors.
At the heart of the structure, sitting in a niche at the top of the shrine, were the white Italian Carrara marble statues of St. Dominic’s reception of the rosary from Our Lady. They are original in design while being traditional in theme. The statues were carved in Italy and given to the College by Theodore V. Galassi of Providence’s Capital Marble and Tile Company.
On the day of the dedication, which was Mother’s Day on Sunday, May 9, 1948, almost 10,000 people attended the blessing and dedication of the grotto. Church dignitaries including Most Rev. Emmanuel Suarez, O.P., master general of the Order of Preachers of Rome, attended. Civic leaders present included Gov. John O. Pastore and the mayors of Providence, Pawtucket, and Central Falls.
After a procession of choir and clergy members from the Aquinas Hall Lounge, Father Suarez led a blessing of the memorial. This was followed by a recitation of the rosary by Rev. Charles H. McKenna, O.P., College chaplain; a sermon by Very Rev. Harold C. Boyd, O.P., director of the Eastern Dominican Mission Band; and greetings from College President Very Rev. Robert J. Slavin, O.P. The ceremony concluded with a solemn benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament and a reception for the guests on the Aquinas Hall terrace. Music was provided by the Providence College Glee Club under the direction of Rev. Leo S. Cannon, O.P.
The grotto served as a gathering place for the College community for services and events. Mass was held every weekday at 8 a.m., along with other devotions, including Sunday and evening Masses and a Baccalaureate Mass for graduating seniors. Open-air classes were occasionally held at the grotto. Commencement Exercises and Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) commissionings were also held there.
More casual activities were held at the grotto, too. In the 1970s and 1980s, it became a place for students. Impromptu games of Frisbee and softball were played here, along with at least one concert. Students would sunbathe there and nicknamed the area “Grotto Beach.”
In the 1990s, the College looked at its growing community and the approaching 21st century and decided to replace the grotto with a one-third scale version of the grotto façade. College President Rev. John F. Cunningham, O.P. made this decision after he formed an ad hoc committee to address growth and other issues, including the cost of restoration and yearly maintenance fees. The committee recommended keeping a grotto and linking it to the construction of a campus chapel.
The grotto’s stonework, statuary, and memorial plaques were restored and reassembled by Kenneth Castellucci & Associates of Lincoln, R.I. The new, smaller grotto — located in the entrance courtyard of the new St. Dominic Chapel, which was dedicated on Feb. 2, 2001 — was intended to serve the same purpose as the original, namely, to serve as a reminder of the sacrifices made by the PC students who served during World War II.