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Four Years at the Mount

Favorite Fall Activities

The Peace of Fall

Leeanne Leary
Class of 2017

(10/2016) There is, never has been, and never will be anything quite like the Grotto of Lourdes at Mount St. Maryís during the start of fall. From the truly inimitable atmosphere to the beauty of the surrounding nature, the Grotto is, by far, my favorite place to be in the fall. My first time ever visiting the Grotto was during autumn, and Iím not sure if it is the sentiment and memory that makes it my favorite to this day or if it the swarm of colors, mountain scenery, bearable temperatures, and natural peace and quiet. Regardless, it is my favorite, and according to the internet, it is also number two of 18 things to do in Emmitsburg! (Iím not sure what is number one, but it must be cool.)

Walking up the stairs to get to the Grotto from the Mountís campus is, admittedly, exhausting. Running these stairs for a workout is close to torture, but the bitterness in my head after every other step disappears immediately upon reaching the top. In an attempt to avoid the clichť expression, "the view is breathtaking," I will simply call it a work of art, and a natural one at that. Whether you drive in and park or brave the stairs, your efforts will be rewarded as soon as the visitorsí center and bell tower are visible, and this is just the beginning. Turn around, and youíll get a view of campus and Emmitsburg that is delicately coated with fall colors of auburn, birch, and crimson orange. The sign that you will read declares, "We are half in the sky; the height of our situation is almost incredible." This is Saint Elizabeth Ann Setonís description of the site; again, this is just the beginning.

Before visiting the Grotto, whether it is your first or 50th time, there are some things you should know. Its rich history certainly adds to its beauty as it is over a century old and is one of the oldest American replicas of the shrine in Lourdes, France. The shrine in Lourdes is home to the first, and the year-long series of Marian apparitions in Lourdes, France in 1858. The first apparition was reported by a fourteen year old peasant girl, Bernadette Soubrirous, who is now a canonized saint. Her description of the woman with whom she spoke on that day matched 17 other descriptions throughout that calendar year. These visions, or conversations, were deemed Marian apparitions, a church was built at the Grotto of Lourdes, and the natural beauty of the site has been preserved ever since. However, it was not a seamless road to becoming the pilgrimage site that it is today. When the apparitions became more regular, and "miracles" that later proved to be hoaxes were revealed, the Grotto gained more and more attention. This attention included concern from the Church and confusion from the government that led to the site actually being shut down and fenced off. Over the next several years the controversy continued until the site was eventually reopened. Now, between four and six million visitors travel to the Grotto every year.

Our own Grotto, here in Emmitsburg, Maryland, is a replica of the one in Lourdes. This replica was established in 1875, not even 20 years after the first apparition. Similar to Lourdes, the Grotto here is devoted to Mary and attracts hundreds of thousands of annual visitors.

Each of these visitors start in front of the bell tower, and then begin the trek to the Grotto itself. Once you have turned your back to the view earlier deemed incredible, you will walk a clearly dictated path that will take you past the glass chapel, to the Grotto cave, where you may either stop or continue to the cavalry scene. This part, I will leave for you to explore. This part of my Grotto visits has always been the most personal, offering the most time for reflection and the most conducive environment to doing so, especially in the midst of the peace of fall.

My first Grotto visit, aside from the candle-lit ceremony during freshmen orientation, was during October of the same year. Before I knew the significance of the site, cared much about the religious history or relevance, or even knew where everything was located, I walked up to the Grotto as if I didnít belong. I knew that I wasnít getting the whole picture, but that didnít matter much. What made me uncomfortable was how comfortable everyone around me was. I wondered why I couldnít also feel at home here, and I continued my walk up the stone path. I breeched the entrance to the shrine, passes the sign that requests silence, and found somewhere to sit on the wooden benches usually used for services. I wasnít too far from the shrine, but I certainly wasnít too close. I sat for almost 20 minutes before moving, simply watching people pass through. It was a Saturday, and happened to be a tour day. At least a hundred people, not from the area, started walking up and I, admittedly, panicked. I donít know what Iím doing here! So, naturally, I sat there until they had all left. All in all, without pausing along the path, at the fountain, approaching the shrine, or walking to the scene of the cavalry, I spent nearly two hours sitting at the grotto. I had coffee, but Iím not sure I needed it. The experience was serene, to say the least, and although I wish I had done a better job at dedicating time to this place over the last three years, my experiences only got better as the months went on. It did, however, take months until I stopped sitting in the middle of the third bench up on the right, and moved forward, but this was necessary. I learned quickly that the only reason I was uncomfortable was because I was forcing myself to be. Soon, I picked up a pamphlet, walked into the visitorsí center, and learned about where I had spent so much time sitting. In learning all of this, I learned that the natural peace surrounding the Grotto is one so unique, and so truly exceptional, that I could not waste the four years I would spend in such close proximity. Although I will hopefully have time to spend here year-round, the sentiment of fall, my first visit, and the over-abundance of beauty in this particular time of year make it, by far, my favorite fall activity and although it is only the second most exciting thing to do in Emmitsburg, as deemed by Travelocity, Iím certain it could be one of your favorites, too.

Read other articles by Leeanne Leary