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Key Westers Pray Grotto Will Protect Them From A Hurricane One More Time

Nancy Klingener
Emil LaVache, 88, was one of many Keys people stopping by the Grotto at Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea

Key West has seen a lot of hurricanes over the years — but the island itself hasn't had a direct hit since 1919 (though there were a couple of near misses, with Hurricane Georges moving across the Lower Keys in 1998 and Wilma swamping the island from the west in 2005).

Some islanders attribute that string to the supernatural - the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto.

Dedicated in 1922 by the Catholic community in the Keys to honor Sister Louis Gabriel, the grotto is located next to what is now the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea. 

Sister Gabriel had lived on the island since 1897 and had seen three major hurricanes in that time. The worst was 1919, a direct hit that destroyed many structures on the island. According to tradition, the nun said that as long as the Grotto stood, “Key West would never experience the full brunt of a hurricane.” 

Key Westers of many faiths often stop by to light a candle when storms threaten the island. On Friday, with Hurricane Irma approaching, dozens were burning.

One of those who came was 88-year-old Emil LaVache. He's retired from the Monroe County Sheriff's Office but was still wearing his deputy uniform (he volunteers to talk to school groups and help out with the Sheriff's Office Animal Farm).

LaVache says he often visits the grotto to pray and was hoping it would protect his home of 40 years.

"If it's God's will," he said. "You gotta remember the end of one of our main prayers — 'Thy will be done.'"

Despite mandatory evacuation orders, LaVache was not leaving the Keys before Irma. He said he was staying with his son and daughter-in-law on Key Haven, a neighborhood about five miles from Key West.

"If it's God's will, He'll protect us," LaVache says. "If there's some other reason that He has, we might see some hardships."

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.