Our Lady of Lourdes grotto is blessed at St. John Paul II Catholic Newman Center
NORMAL — Our Lady of Lourdes has kept a loving eye on the students and staff of the St. John Paul II Catholic Newman Center since long before it was known by that title. Now her presence can be felt in a new way.
Over the summer a grotto in her honor was built in the center’s refurbished backyard with the help of a Newman Center family, students from Illinois State University, Illinois Wesleyan University, and Heartland Community College, and alumni. It was blessed by Coadjutor Bishop Louis Tylka during a Mass and visit on Oct. 11.
“The students are there praying all the time, at all hours,” said Sister Silvia Maria Tarafa, SCTJM, director of the St. John Paul II Catholic Newman Center. “They bring things to Our Lady — flowers and rosaries.”
She added that it’s not unusual for the students to text each other and say, “Who wants to meet me at the grotto?”
“I marvel. I just watch it,” Sister Silvia told The Catholic Post.
The Newman Center’s special relationship to Our Lady of Lourdes dates back to 2010, when Sister Silvia had a vision of the waters from Lourdes covering the entire building, including where the new center and chapel were going to be built. It spilled over the roof and through the windows and flowed out into the street.
She said Sister Sara Kowal, SCTJM, who was there at the time, also had a strong sense of the Blessed Mother’s presence.
“Through the years I have noticed or sensed that the Lord was saying Our Lady was going to come and heal all the students that were there and they were going to bring all the graces they were receiving at the Newman Center out to the outside, to the world . . . taking it out to the streets,” Sister Silvia said.
COVID-19 was not yet a reality when the Lord put it on her heart to refurbish the back of the property and create an outdoor space where the students could gather and pray in times of need. There wasn’t a lot of money in the budget for that, but little by little donations made it possible to paint the back of the building, reclaim parking spaces to make a courtyard, fence it in, and add Christmas tree lights for practical and aesthetic purposes.
Everything came together when Karen Meany, campus minister, and her father, Paul, a retired pipefitter, took on the task of designing and building the grotto. With the help of students and recent alumni they were able to pour the foundation and used bricks to form the structure. A roof, built at the Meany home in Glen Ellyn and trucked to Normal, completed the shelter for Our Lady of Lourdes.
Adding their skills were Konnor Damery, who also serves as campus minister, and Dave Solava, operations manager at the Newman Center.
Even though it can’t be seen, a small statue of St. Joseph is glued inside the wooden roof, “so he can be with Our Lady and protect her. He’s in there, always,” Karen Meany said.
The space includes a prayer written by Mother Adela Galindo, founder of the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary, and painted by Nedyalka Sroka, who entered the religious community on Oct. 16. A 2019 graduate of ISU, Sroka gifted several other art pieces to the Newman Center.
ATTENTIVE TO COVID REALITIES
Sister Silvia said many of the Newman Center Masses and activities take place in the backyard now. This is necessary at a time when there isn’t enough assistance to disinfect the entire Newman Center throughout the day.
“We invite them to come in and be a family and to join the family,” she said. “But how do we invite them to come in and then tell them they have to leave because you can’t be close to one another? How do we tell them to stand in distant spots like they were in school?”
Now they can come to Mass or Wednesday worship, when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed beneath a tent, or Friday socials and stay in a safe environment, according to Sister Silvia.
The back of the Newman Center has been cleared of furniture and made into a chapel, so students can continue to make their Holy Hours. When the weather is bad or it gets cold, there is enough room for them to come together, wearing masks and maintaining a safe social distance, for Mass and Bible studies.
Even though the Newman Center immediately went into Zoom mode in March to continue to provide what the students needed, it wasn’t the same as being together in person, Sister Silvia said, adding they will do what is necessary to stay connected.
“They know to be very attentive to the COVID realities,” she told The Post. “Thank God we haven’t had anything major.”