Constructed over ten years on the site of a former handball court on the grounds of the Providence Home, the Geode Grotto was the idea of Father Phillip Ottavi, an Italian immigrant who was inspired by religious grottoes in Europe. As a child he was orphaned by the Messina earthquake, which killed 100,000 or more people in Italy in 1908, which led to his involvement with the Order of the Sons of Divine Providence who are dedicated to helping the less fortunate.
Grottoes have long been associated with Catholic fervor and devotion. The grotto at Lourdes, France, became famous when an appearance of an apparition of Mary to a young girl was followed by miraculous cures. A frenzy of grotto building in Europe began even earlier in the mid 1600s and continued through the Victorian period, fueled by the apparition at Lourdes, with dozens if not hundreds of grottoes being built both on church land and at private residences. In the US the trend never took off with as much gusto, but there is still a good number of religious grottoes primarily in the midwest.
Geodes are abundant in southern Indiana, and the soft rocks with crystal-filled centers have been used locally as building and decorative material for generations. The geodes that are in the Providence Home grotto come from nearby Heltonville, where a ready supply was found early in the project. The main material is the local geode stones, mixed with bits of marble, carved limestone, and found objects, set into poured concrete. The white Carrara marble statues were imported specially from Italy.
The style of the grotto was intended to imitate the famous grotto at Lourdes, but as one builder put it, there were “No blueprints, just inspiration.” The result covers four city blocks in fountains, planters, cave-like openings and gardens. It was built between 1960-1970 under the guidance of Father Ottavi with the help of residents and coworkers from the home. One worker tells the story about Ottavi’s passion - one day he fell from a platform while working on the main grotto, the Mother of God Shrine, but he was back the next day continuing to work.
There are two major shrines: the Mother of God Shrine on the south end, and the St. Joseph Shrine in the north. The entrance is through Mother of God Shrine, just north of the Providence Home on Bartley Street.
Know Before You Go
From I-64, head North on US 231 for 14.3 miles. 231 twists a bit through Jasper. Turn left at Bartley Street. The grotto lies along this street between 9th & 13th.