Hidden gems: Mary’s grotto

A grotto is a quiet place of prayer and reflection, usually designed in or around a cave. The cave can be natural or man-made.

On our search for public art to include in the North Little Rock Scavenger Hunt, we stumbled upon a secret in plain sight. Just to the right upon driving through the main entrance of St. Joseph Center of Arkansas at 6800 Camp Robinson Road, you’ll find “Mary’s Grotto.”

Mary’s grotto at St. Joseph Center of Arkansas

“A grotto is a quiet place of prayer and reflection, usually designed in or around a cave,” explained Sandy DeCoursey, Executive Director. The cave can be natural or man-made.

Mary’s grotto features a ‘tunnel’ where candles and prayer cards were found over the years.

“There is an interesting history of the grotto as we’ve been told,” Sandy said. “Don’t have any written records that we’ve found…yet. Back in the 1920s there was an ‘elder-orphan’ who had come to live at St. Joseph in the ‘old-folks wing’. His name was James Parker and he was an architect. He wasn’t that old but was in failing health and after he was strong enough, wanted to do something to give back to the orphanage. He built the arch [at the entrance] and also all of the rock-work [planters, walls, etc. around the campus]. The Sisters had requested a grotto be built similar to the ones found in their native European countries like Germany and Italy. Mr. Parker designed it to feature Our Lady of Lourdes but unfortunately died before it was completed. So, the project was set aside due to lack of funds and someone to direct construction.

Architect and St. Joseph resident James Parker built the iconic arch at St. Joseph Center in the 1920s.

“Several years later, (as the story goes) a nicely dressed gentleman showed up on the doorstep of the orphanage and asked if he might visit with the Sisters. He ended up staying for supper and as he was leaving, handed an envelope to the head mother and said, ‘Someone wanted you to have this.’ Inside was $5,000, a fortune in the 1930s. The man disappeared and to this day is unknown. The nuns prayed about it and decided some of the funds would be used to complete the grotto. But this time, they wanted to dedicate it to Our Lady of Fatima. The original sculptures included the three children of Fatima and lambs which have all been vandalized over the years and are no longer visible.”

The grotto previously included statues of three children and lambs; only Our Lady of Fatima is visible today.

Mary’s grotto is visible from Camp Robinson Road, between the intersection of Camp Robinson and Donovan Briley Boulevard and the main entrance into St. Joseph Center.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, St. Joseph Center of Arkansas at 6800 Camp Robinson Road is currently only open to the public for its Friday and Saturday farm stands. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and a designated Arkansas Department of Agriculture Century Farm, St. Joseph Center has been an orphanage, school, nursing home, day care and retreat center run by the Benedictine Sisters of St. Scholastica. It was completed in 1910 by renowned architect, Charles Thompson, includes the 56,000-square-foot building and spans 63 acres.