Labor of love: 100-year-old Naperville grotto getting much-needed restoration
Through the years, Carolyn Lauing-Finzer lovingly groomed the grounds around the stone grotto her grandfather helped build 100 years ago at Saints Peter and Paul Cemetery in Naperville.
But even after decades of maintenance, there was only so much she could do. While occasional patchwork helped, a major restoration was necessary to help the grotto remain a viable gathering space for parishioners.
Thanks to tens of thousands of dollars in donations, work began in March and will continue this summer to clean the stones and rebuild key areas.
The stones on the side walls of the grotto are numbered and removed so a concrete footing can be installed at the base to prevent heaving. Then the stones will be returned in the same original pattern. The deteriorating roof will receive new stones thoughtfully chosen to match the original work and firmly affixed so they don't slide off.
Additional repair work will be done on the stairway and archway, including waterproofing and steel reinforcing.
Lauing-Finzer, who visits almost daily to track progress, can't wait to see the grotto returned to its original glory.
"It's not a cookie-cutter structure," she said. "It's a one-of-a-kinder. It deserves to be restored the right way."
Despite the crumbling stones and missing mortar, visitors marvel at how well the grotto has held up. It's a credit to the craftsmanship of Arthur Miller, Lauing-Finzer's grandfather, and Paul Baumgartner, another renowned mason and local builder in the 1920s.
Together they designed and built the grotto in honor of Bernadette Soubirous, known as St. Bernadette of Lourdes, who experienced apparitions of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in 1858 in France. Our Lady of Lourdes grottoes have been built around the world as a tribute to St. Bernadette.
Between the side walls is an alcove with a domed roof. Next to the alcove is a stairway and a statue of Bernadette praying to Mary as she stands above on a pedestal next to the roof.
"These two buddies loved to work with stone and were artistic craftsmen," Lauing-Finzer said. "They were truly gifted because they designed the grotto without a pattern or any kind of a plan, and together they decided how it was going to look."
While details are sketchy, financial records indicate the original stones were purchased in 1920 and final expenditures were listed in August 1922. Church officials found no evidence of a dedication ceremony, probably because the church was destroyed by a fire in June that year, and parishioners likely were recovering from the loss. Because of the 1922 financial records, the church considers this year the 100th anniversary of the grotto.
For many reasons -- weather damage, vandalism, normal wear-and-tear -- the grotto deteriorated through the decades. Stones slid off the roof from people sneaking into the cemetery to climb on it. Mortar crumbled between the stones, and the side walls sank into the ground without the support of solid footings.
There was a restoration in the 1970s and a patio was built in 1998 with leftover brick from the installation of the Millennium Labyrinth on the Riverwalk. That allowed the church to hold Memorial Day, Columbus Day and Luminary Masses at the grotto.
While maintaining the grounds, Lauing-Finzer often found notes and coins placed throughout the grotto as it became a cherished site for visitors mourning loved ones.
"People come there and they wedge items into the crevices of the alcove," she said. "I never wanted to disturb them. Sometimes they disappeared, and other times they just remained there."
Parishioners at the Luminary Masses lit candles to place in white bags, writing the names of family members on the bags. They'd also leave donations, money that eventually was earmarked to fund the grotto restoration.
"It was years and years of collecting these donations from the loved ones of the deceased that participated in the Luminary Mass," said Michelle Dellinger, the development and communications manager at Saints Peter and Paul. "That provided the financial resources to undertake the restoration."
With a cost of about $40,000, church officials contracted world-renowned masonry expert Mario Machnicki of Chicago-based Marion Restoration. While primarily wanting to provide a site that will last another 100 years, Machnicki also aimed to retain the original structure with as much historic accuracy as possible.
"This is very important work for me," Machnicki said. "I've worked on many grottoes, and I like to analyze materials and see how they're constructed. I do a wide range of masonry work, but this is special."
Restoration began with a power washing that cleansed the grotto's wings, archway, stairs, alcove and storage room of moss, mold and even tiny trees growing on the roof. The washing removed layers of dirt to help bring out the natural color of the stone.
While workers disassembled the side walls to prepare the ground for the new concrete footings, research was conducted to find replacement stones for the roof and elsewhere to match the original dolomite limestone that dates back to rock formations from hundreds of millions of years ago.
In stepped Larry Bromberek of Bromberek Flagstone Company, who, while unable to locate the exact stone, sourced similar dolomite limestone from his Lemont quarry. Meanwhile, Machnicki worked to match the exact color and texture of the original mortar.
"I want to preserve the integrity of the original design," Machnicki said. "It was built this way for a reason, and anything that isn't original only hurts the structure."
Despite the progress, challenges linger as a planned four-to-six-week project has expanded to two months and counting. The rainy weather has continually delayed work, and the technicalities of installing the footings have been difficult to navigate.
"We were hoping it'd be done by Memorial Day," Dellinger said, "but now we're looking at a little longer into the summer."
As long as the finished structure captures the vision of her grandfather and Baumgartner, Lauing-Finzer doesn't mind waiting a little longer.
"Sometimes I wake up and think, 'Wow, we're so close to having it completed,'" she said. "I'm just so grateful."