Mother of Sorrows Grotto Mount Mercy University
psi at work with a small chisel


McAuley Arch, 2010

Underside, McAuley Arch, 2010

Warde Arch, 2010

Detail, Warde Arch, 2010

Bridge, 2010

Ten Commandments tableau, 2010

Mother of Sorrows tableau. (Note, this was created later and is not the work of Lightner.)

Overview, Mother of Sorrows Grotto, 2010.

Ten Commandments tableau mosaic detail.











Mother of Sorrows Grotto, Mount Mercy University, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

The Mother of Sorrows Grotto complex was built on the campus of Mount Mercy College (now Mount Mercy University) by contractor William Lightner over a period of twelve years, from 1929 to 1941. Lightner built the structures of reinforced concrete, masterfully embellished with a range of stones, tile, and other materials. A focal point of the original complex was a Grotto Shrine to the Virgin Mary (no longer extant); radiating out from this monument, Lightner created two commanding Roman entry arches, an elaborate bridge, and a temple-like monument to the Ten Commandments, erected on an island in the lagoon. The monuments are ornamented with phrases expressing Catholic devotion and mottos regarding the Virgin Mary as the Mother of Sorrows.

Built during the Depression and the years preceding World War Two, the Mother of Sorrows Grotto complex was created within a phenomena of Grotto building begun in Iowa by Father Paul Dobberstein, famed builder of the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, and continued by Father Mathias Wernerus with his Holy Ghost Shrine in Dickeyville, WI, and at the Rudolph Grotto of Father Philip Wagner in Rudolph, WI. Dobberstein’s work in Iowa was extensive, and presented a model for building devotional shrines of richly embellished concrete.

William Lightner’s work is both original in its design––especially with his inclusion of the unifying element of the lagoon––and firmly related to the work of Dobberstein and Wernerus. When Dobberstein began his work in 1912, concrete had recently become available to contractors and consumers. Dobberstein traveled far and wide to collect a huge amounts of unusual rock specimens for his constructions, wanting to use the finest materials to create a splendid effect, and to build to the glory of God. Lightner followed his lead and apparently traveled over 40,000 miles to collect stone in the U.S. and Mexico. It’s noteworthy that Lightner constructed the entire Grotto complex at his own expense. The Mother of Sorrows Grotto complex was a labor of love and an expression of his devotion to the Virgin Mary (he was a recent convert to Catholicism when he began building), as well as a major and enduring contribution to the identity and life of Mount Mercy College.

The Mother of Sorrows Grotto complex has anchored Mount Mercy College as a treasured and unique feature of the campus. It has undergone major changes over the years, especially the demolition of the primary Grotto structure and the elimination of the lagoon, both in the 1974. The structures are maintained and the landscape setting is beautifully designed and maintained. A restoration project in 2002 with a preservation grant from the Smithsonian Institution’s Save Outdoor Sculpture (SOS!) program resulted in some structural and cosmetic restoration of the Grotto elements and reestablishing the lagoon, with a smaller footprint than the original. The lagoon serves to unify the elements and the reintroduction of the element of water did much to restore the original character of the site.

At the invitation of Mount Mercy University Preservation Services, Inc. conducted an examination of the elements and prepared a preservation plan in 2010. PSI was retained to begin restoration on the Warde Arch in May 2012.

Warde Arch Restoration, Spring 2012

Responding to the preservation plan, Mount Mercy University began a robust fund raising program to support incremental preservation treatments at the Grotto. Don Howlett worked with Jane Gilmor (Art Department, Mount Mercy University) and Brian Halstead (Structure Savers, Cedar Rapids, IA) on the restoration of the Warde Arch.

The project entailed: