Tucked into a northeast Portland neighborhood, the National Sanctuary of our Sorrowful Mother, or the Grotto, as it is more simply known, is a peaceful retreat amidst the city’s hustle and bustle. It is a place of inherent natural beauty, tempered by man’s earthly edifices of faith in art and architecture. Drawings of the Grotto’s early plans depict a domineering marble church perched atop a barren ridge. But, what exists today is a tranquil shrine and formal garden. Paths meander below imposing old growth Douglas firs, through lush vegetation and visible representations of parables. Visitors are given a chance to reflect on both what is at hand and what may yet to come. As one introductory message heralds, this is a place to witness God’s hand in nature.

While the Grotto’s grounds may be a place of respite, the surrounding neighborhood exists in stark contrast. It is a less than desirable area. A nondescript jostle of suburban houses have grown up around it. Businesses on a busy thoroughfare shield most of the view of the Grotto’s entrance ways. Automotive garages, bars, convenience stores; square, squat buildings of convenient designs behind security fencing.

The Grotto’s parking lots also are fenced off. There are two entrances and with ample parking spaces on a non-event day. The Grotto is perched on a sheer cliff. It’s 62-acre grounds are divided into two area: the lower level, which contains Our Lady’s Grotto shrine, and the upper level, home to the formal gardens. There is no entry fee for the lower level. When arriving from the parking lot, visitors can go directly toward the gift shop and shrine, or they can take a wooded loop trail along a series of large plaques depicting the Stations of the Cross.

Both paths reconvene near the gift shop. Tickets to the gardens and the upper level can be purchased here or at the visitor center. Admission is $7 for adults, $4 for children 6-12 and free for those under 5. The gift shop itself is an interesting building. With a half-arc roofline and walls made almost entirely of glass windows, the forest can be seen from all sides. Inside, visitors will find an assortment of religious-themed tchotchkes and literature to purchase. The rosaries and medals attributed to the saints are of particular interest. Candles also can be purchased for use at the shrine.

Directly outside the gift shop are several interpretive signs and the restrooms. The Madonna of Orvieto also stands in a glass display nearby. This is a four-sided mural of heavy texture and vibrant hues of gold, yellow, blue and green. Not far from the gift shop, visitors will find another interesting piece of art, a bronze sculpture on a stone pedestal, entitled Christus Statue. The piece was donated in 1931 and depicts Jesus with a crown of thorns, carrying the cross and entreating people to lift their eyes to the heavens with an outstretched hand.

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Christus Statue outside of the visitor center

The Christus Statue hearkens on the perimeter of the Grotto Plaza. To the left of the plaza, stands the visitor center with an arched stone walkway leading to the administrative offices. The visitor center also sells tickets, as well as basic refreshments. In addition, it houses a small collection of historical photos and founding documents, information on the Servite Order, which maintains the Grotto; and a few small art pieces. At the far end of the plaza is the Chapel of Mary. A large image of Mary in a red robe on the chapel’s domed tower welcomes visitors to enter. The irregular gray brick exterior gives way to a high, vaulted ceiling and smooth stone walls inside, painted with murals in a similar style to Mary outside. Daily masses are held here.

During the summer months, masses also are held outdoors on the numerous benches of the Grotto Plaza. The slated benches, aligned in rows, face the Grotto’s shrine. This is Our Lady’s Grotto, the namesake and focal point of the Grotto grounds. In 1923, Father Ambrose Mayer located this property in an effort to fulfill a promise of faith. After securing the land’s purchase from the Union Pacific Railroad, he began work on creating a place of sanctuary to honor Jesus’s mother, Mary. An alcove was carved into the 110-foot basalt cliff. Inside, three pillars of a natural stone were erected to serve as an altar, centered by a statue of Mary holding Jesus after his crucifixion. The first mass, attended by 3,000 people, was held in May of 1924.

Today, the original statue has been replaced by a life-size marble replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta. The piece still holds a central position on the shrine’s altar. It is flanked by statues of angels, each holding a torch aloft in one hand, and candelabras, casting a faint glow in the depths of the cave. A rough-hewn stone barrier prevents visitors from directly approaching the altar, but allows for a place to kneel and pray. Also on this upper level of the plaza, banks of shelves with candles lit in dedication to the various saints sit perpendicular to the shrine .

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Our Lady’s Grotto carved into the cliff face

What is most striking about Our Lady’s Grotto is how clearly it reflects its environment. Ferns and vines cling to the cliff above the shrine, creating a thin veil of green around the cave’s opening. Moss creeps over the stones. Tiny green shoots and wildflowers pop up between them. Birds, little wrens and chickadees, robins and bushtits, chirp as they flit in and out of the entrance. There has been an effort not to clear this place of nature and sterilize it. It is a theme that is repeated both in the Grotto’s architecture and throughout its gardens.

Another example of this is right at hand: the elevator to the upper level. While mechanically, the elevator does the standard job of taking visitors up and down, outside, its tall, thin silhouette replicates the thick trunks of the firs it stands amidst. The pale concrete brick has a patina of age and weather, much like the cliff behind it. Two thin, vertical windows take on the splash of blue sky that filters through the overhead branches.

Elevator with sunrise at the Grotto, Portland

The Grotto’s elevator to the upper level gardens

The gardens of the upper level are immaculately cared for. The well-groomed lawns are bordered by trim hedges and flowerbeds. There is a blend of both native plants and traditional garden varieties growing in the understory of the thick trees. The paths throughout are concrete, level, and easily passable by those with mobility issues or strollers. Almost completely under shade, on a hot day, the grounds are a cool place to walk. While an assortment of hydrangeas and summer annuals were in bloom, the gardens are probably best visited in the spring, as there area a large number of rhododendrons and spring-blooming perennials.

The pathway from the elevators forks to the left and to the right. To the left is another building of architectural interest. Two troughs of water line the walkway here, running into infinity pools around a single-room structure built on the cliff’s edge. Inside, visitors will find a second replica of the Pieta. This version is dark, cast in bronze. Behind it is a wall of glass. The sunlight streaming in creates an intimate change of shadows across the statue’s features throughout the day. But, the focal point  of this room is the view. From the windows, visitors can overlook the north-end of Portland: planes flying in and out of the airport, the Columbia River, the bridges into Washington state, Mt. St. Helen’s in the distance and the clusters of houses below.

Bronze Pieta in overlook wing at the Grotto, Portland

Bronze Pieta overlooking northeast Portland

The actual gardens are to the right of the elevator. A recurring theme throughout the gardens is the spiritual journey. Most of the upper level is divided into loops showcasing  pieces of art reflecting the travails of saints or other religious figures. As visitors pass by these pieces, one can take the opportunity to further examine the trials that these figures endured and reach a better understanding of their relationship with God. Sections include the Via Matris, the paths of Mysteries, a labyrinthian path of mediation, St. Joseph’s Grove and a collection of shrines donated from around the world and dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows. In addition, there are numerous statues throughout the gardens depicting saints and versions of Mary.

Two additional structures of note exist in the upper gardens. One, is the Ministry of the Servite Friars’ monastery. This private monastery  is located toward the rear of the grounds. It is not accessible to the public. It is a stolid gray building of heavy stone bricks, arched doorways and thin, black-trimmed windows. A small rose garden and fountain with a marble statue of Mary stands in front. The Servites, also known as the Order of Servants of Mary, are a Catholic mendicant order dedicated to the service of Mary under the her title, Mother of Sorrows. The order upholds a tradition of community life with the virtues of hospitality and compassion. Their teachings focus on meditations regarding the passions of Jesus and the sorrows of Mary.

The second structure of note, is the tiny Chapel of St. Anne. The chapel marks the site of the 1934 Marian Congress, the first held in the United States. The Congress is an organization dedicated to the historical and theological study of the Virgin Mary. The simple red and white building is one open room. A kneeler is all there is on the floor, positioned at the far end in front of a small shrine of Mary. Paintings of Mary and the saints adorn the walls, broken periodically by small stained glass windows.

Statue of Mary with child in chapel at the Grotto, Portland

Interior of the Chapel of St. Anne

The Grotto is a national Catholic shrine. Annually, it attracts 300,000 visitors from the local area and abroad. It is a place that inspires quiet reflection and spiritual pilgrimage. However, whether you are a person of faith or not, the Grotto is worth a visit. The gardens are a special place for their design, plants and wildlife. The amount of sculpture and artwork contained throughout the grounds hearkens almost to an open-air museum. The architecture, in particular, is worth viewing.

The Grotto is open daily from 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. It is located at 8840 NE Skidmore St., Portland, 97220.

Tip: Mass is held in the Chapel of Mary at 10 a.m. on Sunday, year-round; 8 a.m., Saturday; and noon, Monday through Friday. From May through October, a noon mass also is held Sundays in the Grotto plaza. Visit https://thegrotto.org/ for a list of additional services.

Christmas Festival of Lights is held from Thanksgiving through Dec. 30. It runs nightly from 5-9:30 p.m. The festival not only includes the decoration of the gardens, but nightly choral programs, a petting zoo and other holiday-themed entertainment.