The Grotto—formally known as the National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother—is a Roman Catholic sanctuary and shrine located in Portland, Oregon. For religious and non-religious visitors alike, the Grotto is a place of peace and natural beauty, perfect for reflection and relaxation. Visitors will find beautiful gardens, statues, places of worship as well as, of course, the towering Grotto for which the place is known.
The Grotto was founded by Father Ambrose Mayer and opened on May 29, 1924. However, his inspiration and driving reasons for building the Grotto began when he was a small child and his mother nearly died giving birth. Young Mayer prayed for her to live and promised to build a great work for his church someday if she survived, and she did indeed survive.
Mayer joined the Servite Order in 1918 and was sent to Portland. In 1923, he found a property that had once been a rock quarry and was up for sale by the Union Pacific Railroad Company. The asking price was $48,000 and Father Mayer only had $3,000, but he made the downpayment and a national campaign helped make up the rest of the funds. The Grotto opened in 1924 and was designated a National Sanctuary in 1983.
What to See
While you should of course see the actual Grotto on your visit, don’t assume that’s the only noteworthy sight. The sanctuary is home to all kinds of different gardens and spaces, some free (the lower level) and some with an admission cost (the upper level requires an admission fee, which you pay before you get onto the elevator).
Attractions on the Lower Level
The Grotto: The Grotto is a cave carved out of a cliff face. The cave measures 30 feet wide and deep, and 50 feet high, and has a statue of Mary holding Jesus in her arms at its center. In front of the cave are several rows of pews, making it an excellent place to sit and reflect.
Stations of the Cross: While much of the artwork at the Grotto is found on the upper level, the Stations of the Cross are on the lower level so anyone can see them for free. The 14 stations, purchased by Father Ambrose Mayer in 1930, are located on a circular trail and feature bronze bas reliefs at each station.
Chapel of Mary: Built in 1955, the Chapel of Mary has a 110-foot-tall bell tower, a bas relief over the bronze entryway, paintings on the walls and ceilings by Jose De Soto, statues made from Italian Carrara marble, a large stained glass window, and can accomodate 600 people for ceremonies or performances.
Attractions on the Upper Level
The Peace Garden: The Peace Garden is one of the best reasons to pay the cost of admission to get to the upper level. This 1.5-acre garden is more manicured than the woodland trails of the lower level and is a light, bright, and open space highlighted by ponds and a stream. It’s also where you’ll find the Mysteries of the Rosary, which are a series of bronze plaques by artist Mary Lewis.
The Rose Garden: Why not enjoy a lovely rose garden while you’re in the City of Roses? This volunteer-run garden showcases several varieties of roses, including many that have won awards.
Chapels: There are chapels located on both the upper and lower levels. The upper level has two vastly different chapels: St. Anne's and the Meditation Chapel. The adorable and small St. Anne’s Chapel was built in 1934 to honor the mother of Mary, and today it’s home to several paintings of Mary from around the world. The Meditation Chapel is a modern granite building built in 1991, which also serves as a stellar place to admire the view of the Columbia River and Mount St. Helens.
Via Matris: Via Matris is yet another impressive work of art at the Grotto. Via Matris means Way of Our Sorrowful Mother and is a series of 34 wood carvings done by Professor Heider of Pietralba, Italy. At one time, the carvings were painted, but today they are back to their natural wood.
The Labyrinth: The most famous labyrinth in the world is located at the Chartres Cathedral in Chartres, France. The labyrinth at the Grotto is modeled after that famous Medieval labyrinth and, like its inspiration, serves as a place of reflection, spiritual journey, and meditation. Those wishing to walk the way of the labyrinth follow its path to the center and then back out again.
Festival of Light: For a truly unique experience at the Grotto, look to visit during the holiday season. From the day after Thanksgiving until the end of December, the spaces of the Grotto are lit for the holidays and it’s an absolutely beautiful time to visit.
How to Visit
If you only wish to visit the lower level, you can simply walk right onto the property and explore the trails, Grotto, gift shop, and other things located at this level. If you want to take the elevator to the upper level, you can purchase admission at the gift shop or visitor center. The Grotto is open all year long except for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but note that if you want to see everything in bloom, then later spring or early summer are best. Or if you want to see the gardens lit up for the holidays, visit between the day after Thanksgiving and the end of December.
What Else to Do Nearby
The Grotto is close to the Portland International Airport so if you have a longer layover and want to get out and about, the Grotto is a fine choice.
Also near the airport are several golf courses if you want to pair your serenity and reflection with a tee time. Nearby golf courses include Riverside Golf & Country Club, Broadmoor Golf Course, Colwood Golf Center, and the Rose City Golf Course.
Portland is known for its tasty eateries and the area around the Grotto is no exception. Don’t miss a stop at Pip’s Original Doughnuts & Chai for a sweet treat.
If you love the natural surrounds of the Grotto and want to keep the Northwest scenery going, then head to the nearby Rocky Butte Natural Area and Joseph Wood Hill Park that sits at its very top. The easiest way to get to the top is to drive the windy road up, and once you’re at the top, you’ll find level ground that’s perfect for walking, picnicking, and enjoying the views.