The historic grotto at Maternity BVM Church is a sacred place for Viatorians and parish members. It was built by Br. John Koelzer, CSV, and men of the parish, who built the grotto in the image of Our Lady of Lourdes when she first appeared to young Bernadette on Feb. 11, 1858.

Br. John Koelzer, CSV, left, poses beside the shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes, after it was completed in 1918

Working with stone from a quarry along the Kankakee River, the grotto took three years to complete and was dedicated in 1918, exactly 60 years after Mary’s appearance in Lourdes.

While it has drawn visitors and worshipers over the last 100 years, what is little known is that the grotto was dedicated to soldiers from the parish who were fighting in World War I. A marker documents the history of the parish and its sacred grotto, and lists the names of the soldiers who fought in the so-called Great War.

This Memorial Day, parish members were reminded of this sacred dedication to veterans of the parish, with the reprinting of the wording on the marker on its Facebook page.

Here are some excerpts:

The parish of Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the oldest parish in Kankakee County. The original name of the church was St. Leo, and one of the early priests of this parish community was Rev. Stephen T. Badin, who was the first priest ordained in the United States by Bishop John Carroll in 1793. Rev. Rene Courjault became the first resident pastor in 1847.

This historic marker lists the names of the men of the parish who fought in World War I.

The Maternity cemetery dates back to 1842. By the year 1884 this little cemetery was filled. Most tombstones have disappeared over these many years; however, this ground remains the final resting place for hundreds of early Bourbonnians. Thus this is a sacred place.

Rev. Pierre Beaudoin, C.S.V. purchased land near the Kankakee River that became the new Maternity B.V.M. Cemetery. The graves of the early priests, religious brothers and sisters were moved to the new cemetery.

Several artifacts can be found on this site next to the church. These artifacts include the Sacred Heart statue that once stood on the high pedestal in front of Saint Viator College, the Theologians’ Bench and Sundial given by the graduation class of 1919, which includes Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, Br. John F. Koelzer, C.S.V. (1885-1959) teacher, sacristan and musician, who created the grotto in 1918 to honor the memory of the young men of the parish who served during World War I. Br. Koelzer penned his hopes that the grotto would be a lasting tribute to Our Lady of Lourdes and to St. Bernadette.