For many decades, the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes stood as a beloved neighborhood landmark. Built into the corner of 2 Aberdeen Street at the intersection of Aberdeen and Broadway, the stone structure housed a statue of the Virgin Mary. Several generations of locals considered it to be a sacred space; a place where they could pause, reflect, ask for mercies, or meditate.
“The grotto was a special place in our lives,” says local Robert LaRosa. “Every time I’d pass by, I’d have my special silent prayer.”
But the grotto was torn down last week, much to the chagrin of hundreds of Bushwick residents, several of whom visited the scene to collect stones from the rubble and pay their respects.
Photo by Christopher Bride for PropertyShark
In 1897, the wealthy residents of Bushwick Avenue (then called the 5th Avenue of Brooklyn) donated a great deal of money towards the construction of the massive Our Lady of Lourdes church and adjoining schoolhouse, two buildings that remained cornerstones of the community for decades.
A grotto was built inside the church, behind the altar, numerous contemporary and later reports reveal. Grottoes are small man-made caves, often created for ornamental or devotional purposes.
The one at Our Lady of Lourdes was a replica of the cave in Lourdes, France, that marks the site of a series of famous 19th century visions of the Virgin Mary — Our Lady of Lourdes.
In 1976, arsonists torched the church and it had to be torn down. “The community was stunned,” says Carol Podkrash, who runs the Our Lady of Lourdes Alumni Group on Facebook. “Tears were running down everybody’s faces.”
At some point, it appears, the grotto was re-created outside on a corner of the school, which was not affected by the blaze.
“The construction of the Grotto was so precise,“ says Podkrash. “And it was beautiful, adorned with flowers and lights spotlighted on her.”
Brownstoner learned that on any given day, locals would stop by, say a prayer, and leave flowers at the foot of the religious icon.
“I grew up across the street from the school,” says former Bushwick resident Dey Vega, whose mother had been a teacher there. “The Grotto was a fixture in my old neighborhood for as long as I can remember. I’m very sad to see it get demolished.”
The grammar school itself closed in 2004. The building has been empty for almost 10 years, but the grotto continue to survive –– until only a few days ago.
Stefanie Gutierrez, a spokesperson for The Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, explained that the diocese wanted to begin leasing 2 Aberdeen but first needed to make repairs on the property, including fixing the retaining wall in front of the grotto. It held up the dirt on which the grotto stood, but was crumbling and splitting apart, as the PropertyShark photo above shows.
“That’s why we had to tear it down,” she says, “but Father John Cabon has every intention of relocating the grotto to one of the neighborhood’s two worship sites.”
A final view of the grotto moments before demolition
Gutierrez wouldn’t divulge any details about the lease agreement. (She initially told Brownstoner she thought the grotto had been destroyed in the 1970s fire.) Many locals hope they plan to turn the building into a public school again.
A 2012 proposal to turn two of the site’s buildings into affordable and special-needs housing appears to have been recently revived by developer Georgica Green Ventures. However, those plans do not include the school building or corner of the former grotto.
A previously unpublished rendering of the proposed development at 1 DeSales Place. The large horseshoe-shaped building is the former school house. Image from Georgica Green
“The grotto is all we had left to pay our respects to Our Lady,” Podkrash says.
It’s good news the diocese decided to repair the crumbling retaining wall. But too bad the grotto could not be saved.
For more information:
Bushwick Convent May Be Turned Into Affordable Housing [Brownstoner]
Revealed: Our Lady of Lourdes Redevelopment, 1 DeSales Place, Bushwick [YIMBY]
Photos via Carol Podkrash unless otherwise noted