New Bedford parish builds grotto to honor Our Lady

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Joe Amaral smiles as he looks at the fenced-in area that runs along the Nye Street side of the historic St. Anthony of Padua Church in New Bedford.

About a year ago he remembers it being something of an eyesore, overgrown and littered with debris.

“This area (of the neighborhood) was known not exactly for the best reasons,” Amaral said. “We found some needles in the bushes and all kinds of stuff.”

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So when his pastor, Father Octavio Cortez, I.V.E., asked parishioners if they would help by building a grotto there to house a beautiful statue of Our Lady of Grace they had inherited from the former St. Kilian Church, Amaral and some of the members of his Knights of Columbus council immediately stepped up to the plate.

“That’s just what the Knights do: we serve,” Amaral told The Anchor. “But other people helped as well, it wasn’t just the Knights. But we led the charge.”

“I wanted to bring whatever was possible from St. Kilian’s to St. Anthony’s,” Father Cortez explained. “My hope is that making use of Liturgical items once used at St. Kilian’s will help former parishioners feel even more at home at St. Anthony’s by seeing familiar religious objects.”

Work began in earnest on the project last fall, but the winter weather temporarily put things on hold, according to fellow Knight Pat Robitaille.

“We started in the fall of last year,” Robitaille said. “We had the frame all built — the Knights built the frame — we had the wire mesh up but then it snowed and we had to cover it up and wait for the spring. So we finished it in June.”

Comprised of stone, cement and granite, the large arch-shaped grotto is now the centerpiece of a garden-like area that has also been adorned with new plantings and fresh landscaping.

“We had the granite donated, but we cut all the granite and put it in ourselves,” Robitaille said. “All the landscaping was done by members of the Spanish community here in the parish — they put in the sod and planted the flowers and bushes around the area. I’d guess there were about 30 or 40 people who worked on this project.”

The life-sized alabaster statue of the Blessed Mother is encased within the new grotto, which also has a blue sky painted backdrop that lights up at night.

“We hired a mason to do the stonework, but one of our Knights did the electrical work and installed the light inside — it’s on a light sensor,” Robitaille said. “When it’s lit up at night, the painting behind the statue has an almost three-dimensional effect.”

Robitaille said the Knights even found two white angel statues that matched the style and look of Our Lady of Grace and added them to either side of the new grotto.

“The angels on either side of the grotto were new — we bought them,” he said. “I think they match the look of the statue pretty well.”

As if the additional landscaping and guardian angels weren’t enough, Amaral said they recently showed up to find someone had purchased and installed a metal park bench so people could sit in front of the grotto and pray.

“We had planned on getting a bench ourselves, but then one day it just showed up,” he said. “I was told someone donated it.”

“I’m not sure by whom, but I’ve heard rumors,” Robitaille added. “There was talk that one of the ministries in the parish wanted to donate the bench, but we were never told who it was.”

For Amaral, this anonymous donation is a prime example of how small efforts like this can touch and inspire others.

“Everything is done for the glory of God, and that’s the attitude that we have,” he said. “We do it for Him and when people see it, maybe they’ll stop here and say a Hail Mary or come in and ask questions, you know? If we do it for Him, look what we can accomplish.”

Situated just steps from the lower level entrance to the St. Anthony of Padua parish hall, where the busy food pantry is held every week, Amaral said the project even inspired a few of the clients to lend a hand.

“A lot of people helped us — even some people who were coming to the food pantry on Thursday,” he said. “I thought it was nice of them to help out, because I always say you can’t live on bread alone. And if you help someone, somewhere down the line it will come full circle.”

“I remember the clients who had come for the weekly food pantry and offered to help out — and that’s when we were doing the really dirty work, digging ditches for the power line and stuff like that,” Robitaille said. “They helped us do that and it was on a hot, hot day, too.”

Admitting he is very happy with the final results, Amaral is always looking to do just a little more.

“It would be nice if we had a little dome on it or had kneelers to pray, but that’s more work,” he said, smiling. “I was hoping we could do more, but the guys who did it — everyone really came together and got it done. As we go forward, I hope we can do even more for this parish and to make this neighborhood better. If Father Octavio says, ‘I would like to have this done,’ then we’ll do it.”

“I think the end result far surpassed my expectations,” Father Cortez said. “Our Knights of Columbus did an excellent job. Parishioners and parish neighbors have expressed great satisfaction towards the grotto. I see people coming to pray in front of the statue, others make the sign of the cross as they pass in front of it.”

Parishioner Louise Parent, who watched the progress from when it began last fall, said she couldn’t wait for the grotto to be finished.

“I thought it was awesome when I first saw it,” she said. “We waited a long time for it, but it’s beautiful.”

During this centennial year celebrating the 100th anniversary of Our Lady’s apparitions to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal, it’s appropriate that the parishioners of St. Anthony of Padua have also selected a Marian-themed project to complete.

“It’s a way of honoring our Blessed Mother for who she is, for sure, and giving glory to God,” Amaral said.

“Our love for Mary is one thing by which our parish wants to be identified,” Father Cortez agreed. “We have Novenas, the daily praying of the Rosary, and special celebrations to honor Mary and this grotto, hopefully, will also help to serve that purpose.”

Amaral also sees the effort as a small gesture to help clean up the area and show that the parish is being a good neighbor.

“Hopefully by beautifying this area, our parish will grow and it will improve the neighborhood,” he said. “I remember a priest once told me, if you change just one person every day — meaning, I change a person, you change a person, that person changes a person — then how long will it take to change the whole world? Thirty-three years. I like that.”

Calling the project “a labor of love,” Amaral said the Knights aren’t looking to be thanked or applauded for their efforts, but they hope it might just inspire others to find something similar to accomplish in their own parish.

“Maybe we can help other parishes do the same,” he said. “We can certainly share our ideas and supervise them.”

“We’d be happy to give them ideas, but they can provide the labor,” Robitaille agreed. “If we can do it, anybody can.”

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