Facing A New Peril, Key Westers Seek Solace At Grotto Built To Protect Them From Storms

Apr 6, 2020

At the Roman Catholic basilica in Key West there's a grotto, where the faithful pray when hurricanes are approaching the island. And islanders are turning to it now, as they face a different threat.

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The Basilica of Saint Mary Star of the Sea is not holding services and its adoration chapel is closed. The church itself is open, so people can worship at a safe social distance from each other.

"But where the greater number of people are going to pray is the grotto," said the Rev. John Baker, pastor of the Basilica. "It's remarkable because I thought more would come inside the church, but more are going to the grotto."

Baker said he's not sure why — maybe it's because the grotto is outside, which may make people feel safer. Or maybe it's because Key Westers have turned to that place in times of peril for almost a century.

It was built at the request of a Sister Louis Gabriel, who lived in Key West in the early 20th century as a sister of the Holy Name of Jesus and Mary.

The 1919 hurricane devastated Key West damaging buildings like these along the waterfront.
Credit Key West Art & Historical Society collection / Monroe County Public Library

Hurricanes hit the Keys in 1909 and 1910. The worst one was in 1919. That one, it's estimated now, was a Category 4. It killed hundreds of people along its path and caused catastrophic damage in Key West.

Gabriel's family wanted to send her to Rome to mark her 25th anniversary as a member of the order, Baker said. She asked for the grotto instead. It's modeled on the Sanctuary of our Lady of Lourdes in France and is built out of coral rock.

"She said if you pray before this grotto, before a hurricane, Key West will not suffer complete devastation," Baker said. "Since that time there's just been a huge devotion to it and we have not yet suffered complete devastation since it was built in 1922."

Hurricanes weren't the only trauma that Key West went through in those years. The Spanish influenza was a global pandemic and Key West was not exempt, especially as a bustling port and Navy base as the U.S. entered World War I.

The pastor at St. Mary Star of the Sea basilica said he was surprised to see people turning to the grotto, which was built to protect the island from the direct impact of hurricanes.
Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN

The Monroe County health officer at the time, W.R. Warren, reported that the flu killed 79 people in the Keys in 1918 — 69 of them in the month of October alone.

"October had to be devastating, like New York probably is today," said Tom Hambright, historian with the Monroe County Public Library.

And just under a year later, in September 1919, came the hurricane that destroyed a lot of property in town and led the Navy to close its air station on the island.

The cigar industry was already in steep decline and the population started dropping.

"That hurricane is the beginning of the Depression in Key West," Hambright said.