⛪ A weird look at The Grotto Sanctuary

Welcome to Wednesday, Portland.

Let’s get weird — as we do every Wednesday in collaboration with the awesome folks at Weird Portland United.

Today, we’re taking a stroll through a very serene garden and finding a sense of inner peace — a garden that came about because of the promise of a Canadian boy at the end of the 19th century. We’re talking about The Grotto, its history, and the tranquility it provides to Portlanders.

So if you’re finding yourself in times of trouble, scroll on down and let it be.

Tucked away in Portland’s Roseway neighborhood is a garden sanctuary built into a cave that folks call “The Grotto.” 

Another, more official, name for it is the Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother, and it’s been a feature of our city for nearly a hundred years, showcasing lush gardens and statues of various Biblical figures.

So how does a sanctuary like this wind up inside a cave here in Stumptown? Its origins began in Canada at the end of the 1800s when a small boy learned that his mother’s life was in jeopardy due to a complicated birth. The boy ran to his local church and prayed that his mother and sibling’s lives would be spared, and if so, he’d devote himself to doing great work for the church.

Both his mother and baby sister survived, and the young boy went on to become Father Ambrose Mayer. In 1918, Ambrose joined the Servite Order and practiced as a pastor in Portland. He didn’t forget his childhood promise and would often speak of looking for a suitable place for a tribute to Mother Mary. Finally in 1923, he came across a quarry formed in a natural cathedral that would be a perfect site for this tribute. The cost was steep though, clocking in at $48,000, and Ambrose bid every penny of the $3,000 he’d brought with him as a down payment.

In September of that year, construction began on The Grotto — a cave was carved out of the 110-foot basalt cliffside, and a stone altar was built with a depiction of Mary holding the body of her son after his crucifixion. A replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà was added several years later. And in 1924, the site held its first ever Mass for a crowd of 3,000.

By 1983, The Grotto was officially designated as a national sanctuary, featuring a chapel alongside its many shrines. To this day, the sanctuary welcomes folks from all walks of life, both of faith and not, to wander through the gardens and find solace in its natural beauty and serenity. They’ve successfully held out throughout the pandemic and follow mask and social distancing mandates both during their Masses and within the gardens.

Regardless of where your beliefs fall, a visit to The Grotto is absolutely worth your time.

Thank you to our Bridgeliner Unabridged members. Stories like these are made possible with your membership and support.