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A Catholic Sister's vision in Key West has provided solace before storms — and more — for a century

A grotto made of coral rock with a woman praying to Our Lady of Lourdes.
Nancy Klingener
The grotto at St. Mary Star of the Sea Basilica in Key West was dedicated 100 years ago.

In Key West next to the Catholic basilica, a structure of coral rocks in the shape of a grotto has endured for 100 years.

"There are people here, night and day, praying," said Father John Baker, rector of St. Mary Star of the Sea Basilica and pastor of the parish. "It's beautiful to see. They do it with the utmost of humility and sincerity. So it has become a place that is ours. For whatever purpose we see fit."

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The grotto is there because of Sister Louis Gabriel, a Sister of the Holy Name of Jesus and Mary.

"She was a teacher. And as such, she had pedagogical skills," Baker said. "Well, in 1909, 1910, and 1919 she suffered through three devastating hurricanes. It would be like it was for everybody, it's just your whole world's turned upside down."

In the early 1900s, of course, there were no satellites, radar, Internet or all the other ways that people learn storms are coming and prepare. They could watch the barometer — and cope with what came.

"Obviously it had an effect and she had a means to help us know how to face storms," Baker said. "It was coming time for her 25th anniversary of vows and her family wanted to send her to Rome to celebrate. And she said, 'You know what I really want? I want to build a Grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes.' And she had some conditions on that. Because there was a high school, she engaged the high school students to get these coral rocks from throughout the island. In so doing, this Grotto became theirs, not hers."

A man in a white shirt next to candles at the grotto in Key West.
Nancy Klingener
Father John Baker, rector at St. Mary Star of the Sea Basilica in Key West, says people pray at the grotto 'night and day.'

Baker said Gabriel made that clear when the grotto opened.

"She said, 'If you come here to pray before a storm, be it a hurricane or any personal storm, you and Key West will not suffer complete devastation.' Her brilliance was, by the stones, she invited their participation but then she invited prayer. She said if you come to prayer before a storm, she didn't say how. She didn't say you had to say three Hail Marys, step on your left foot and bring a chicken feather. She said if. And in so doing that made this Grotto theirs. So anyone can pray here in any way they see fit."

The grotto at St. Mary's has been adopted beyond the island's Catholic community.

"I was speaking to one man once who said that he's an atheist but he believes in the grotto. And I said, 'Whatever you want to call your higher power, that's great.' But it's fascinating how everyone has appropriated this grotto as their own in their own way. And she opened the door for that," Baker said.

That faith has continued, even as Key West has been impacted by hurricanes like Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and Irma in 2017.

"When I first got here was after Irma. The roof was damaged in the Basilica at that time and that happens because of the type of roof it was. And so, this person said, 'See! It didn't work!' I said, 'We're alive! It did work!' " Baker said. "We can replace a roof. But, you know, it did work. We're alive and that's what's most important."

A bust of Sister Louis Gabriel in front a small cemetery.
Nancy Klingener
A bust near the grotto honors Sister Louis Gabriel. She is buried in the cemetery behind the fence.

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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