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MADISON—Mary Rose Carlow scurries around Prince of Peace Parish’s new Divine Mercy grotto in Madison. She sweeps, rearranges flowers in a vase before the statue, and waters the red and white mums along the path to the prayer space.
She finally sits on one of the black iron benches in the grotto and takes in what three years ago was just a vision in her mind.
“God is awesome in that he places things in your heart,” she says. “I’ve always been in love with the Divine Mercy prayer and prayed it, but 10 years ago I felt like I needed to do more.”
Thus began the journey that resulted in the grotto’s prayerful presence—and a lesson in the beauty of God’s perfect timing.
When Carlow felt a nudge to do more to promote devotion to the Divine Mercy image, prayer and message a decade ago, she started leading the Divine Mercy novena at her parish, Prince of Peace.
“I did that for a couple of years, but I felt God telling me, ‘I still need you to do more,’ ” recalls Carlow, a 53-year-old high school behavioral counselor in Madison. “Just by the grace of God, I happened to be looking something up and came across a Divine Mercy website [on how] to start your own Divine Mercy apostolate.”
She asked her pastor, Father Christopher Craig, for permission to start such a group at Prince of Peace.
“He said, ‘Go for it,’ ” Carlow recalls.
The group, which has about 12 members, focuses on practicing spiritual and corporal works of mercy, studying the Divine Mercy message as revealed through St. Faustina Kowalska’s diary, and on spreading devotion to God’s mercy as revealed by Christ to St. Faustina in the 1930s.
In 2013, a few years after the start of the apostolate, Father Craig told Carlow about the archdiocese’s Queen and Divine Mercy Center Endowment Fund. It was created through the archdiocesan Catholic Community Foundation (CCF) by a former religion teacher of his at Father Michael Shawe Memorial High School in Madison, Father Elmer Burwinkel, who later died in 2014. The fund is designated to support activities in the archdiocese that “honor and recognize Mary as Queen and Mother of Jesus, Divine,” according to CCF director Elisa Smith.
Carlow applied for a grant to purchase material for the apostolate, books for the Prince of Peace library, rosaries and information for the parish church on how to pray the Divine Mercy chaplet.
After the first year of receiving grant money, Carlow decided to apply again in 2014. But this time she had something bigger in mind.
“After the first year of the grant, I was like, ‘You know, we can do more than this,’ ” Carlow recalls.
She asked Father Craig if he thought building a Divine Mercy grotto on the St. Patrick campus of Prince of Peace Parish would be a good idea. Father Craig not only said yes, but he also knew just the place.
“The spot is someplace that can be seen from the road and from the [Pope John XXIII] school,” he says. “You can’t help but see it when you’re driving up and down State Street. The back drop is some woods, so it’s really pretty, and plus the kids can come over and pray.”
So Carlow applied again for the grant and received $2,500. Prince of Peace parishioner Bob Schafer cleared the spot where the grotto would go, and he connected Carlow with Scotty Center, a 76-year-old Madison resident experienced in building with stone.
“He lives on a creek and said he’d give us all the rocks we need,” says Carlow. “He donated all of his time, and we didn’t have to pay for about 95 percent of the stone in the grotto!”
Using pictures of grottos from research Carlow had gathered, Center designed the structure and decided upon an arch for the statue niche, with stair-stepped creek stone walls embracing a circular area to form the grotto.
In addition to using the local creek stone—many with fossils embedded and exposed—Center included a steel frame encased by thick concrete in the construction of the shrine.
“This thing isn’t coming down,” he assures.
When Carlow’s retired husband David wasn’t working at the parish’s Catholic Community Center, where he volunteers about 20 hours a week, he helped Center with the construction of the grotto.
Meanwhile, Carlow ordered an Italian, hand-carved Divine Mercy statue through a company in Texas. She was told it would take several months to arrive, which worked out well, she says—it was the fall of 2014, and she figured the grotto would be done in 2015. All was going according to Carlow’s plan.
But God’s timing does not always coincide with human plans, Carlow realized.
“The spring of ‘15 comes and they’re building the wall, but it’s not progressing the way I want it to,” she recalls. “The weather wasn’t cooperating,” and the temperatures made it difficult to work on the structure between November and March.
“Then in 2015, when Pope Francis declared the [Holy] Year of Mercy, it clicked: it’s not supposed to be done yet, not until the Year of Mercy,” she says she realized. The jubilee year began on Dec. 8, 2015.
So Carlow applied for another grant for the grotto in 2015 and again received $2,500.
In the spring of 2016, after two years of planning and with building occurring only about seven months out of the year, Carlow says the grotto stood only a quarter complete.
“I told my husband, ‘It has to get done this year,’ ” she says, knowing the Holy Year of Mercy would end on Nov. 20.
And then, for some reason, she says, things began to move quickly. Men from a local factory constructed the steel frame, and the arch began to take shape.
“Kids would come over from preschool and just sit and watch as they worked,” says Carlow. “It’s been amazing. The little ones and the adults as well have loved seeing the progress.”
One more grant was applied for, and again Carlow received $2,500. A small altar was built. Black, cast iron benches were purchased, landscaping was done, and a spotlight was installed to illuminate the grotto at night.
Two plaques were also installed, one honoring Father Burwinkel and one honoring Father Hilary Meny’s 100th birthday on Jan. 21, 2015. Father Meny was pastor of the former St. Patrick Parish in Madison for 40 years, retiring before the parish was merged with two other parishes to form Prince of Peace. He passed away on Oct. 7 of this year.
Just three days prior to his passing—and almost six weeks before the closing of the Holy Year of Mercy—the Divine Mercy grotto was dedicated before the parish’s daily Mass on Oct. 4. Prior to the liturgy, which was held at the grotto, Father Craig blessed the structure, the statue and the altar.
He says about 70 people were present for the dedication and Mass. Becky Goebel, who in 1946 was received into the full communion of the Church at one of the parishes that merged into Prince of Peace, was there for the special occasion.
“It was a beautiful dedication,” she says. “I was so happy to be there and see what we’d been hearing about. [The grotto] is lovely. The whole area can see it. It’s not hidden, and it’s easily accessible to people that can’t just get everywhere.”
With the grotto being close to the St. Patrick Church parking lot and accessible by a sidewalk, Father Craig says it will now be the site of the parish’s annual outdoor Mass, as well as the parish’s service for the Feast of the Divine Mercy, the Sunday after Easter.
But Mass is far from the only use for the grotto. The very day after the dedication, Carlow says she saw a teacher from Pope John XXIII School holding religion class in the grotto.
“I wondered how much it would get used, but I look out the window from our parish office and about every day there’s somebody out there,” says Father Craig.
“It’s so cool to see people up there praying,” says Carlow. “I wanted it to be a place where the parishioners and the community in general could go and just be with [Christ].”
She admits the grotto is a work in progress. A concrete cross about 2 feet by 3 feet was discovered half-buried on the St. Patrick property during the construction of the grotto. Carlow wants to build a base of creek stone for the cross and place it near the grotto. She also wants to install a container to hold rosaries and pamphlets on how to pray the rosary and the Divine Mercy chaplet.
While there may be more components Carlow wants to add, she is thrilled that the grotto to the Divine Mercy was completed during the Holy Year of Mercy.
“This year has been so awesome. It’s made people aware of his mercy,” she says. “And being able to spread the word and the novena [through the grotto] has been amazing.
“I want the message of the Divine Mercy to be spread through it. And hopefully those who have been there will then spread the word.”
(The Divine Mercy grotto is located at 305 W. State St. in Madison on the St. Patrick campus of Prince of Peace Parish.) †