Wichita seminarian leads effort to rebuild grotto

Grotto built in 1919 in thanksgiving for no loss of life during a smallpox epidemic
By Andrew Herby Labenz
As a junior at Conception Seminary College, Kyle Dugan was in need of a leadership role on campus. For years, various seminarians had tried to fulfill this required leadership role by rebuilding the Marian Grotto that was once a refuge of prayer and silence for the monks and seminarians of Conception Abbey and Conception Seminary College. However, none had been able to fulfill their commitment.
Dugan, a seminarian studying for the Diocese of Wichita, became interested in taking up the Maryknoll Grotto project because it offered him a chance to prove his leadership qualities to the formation staff, but more importantly because it offered him the chance to serve his brother seminarians and the Blessed Mother. “I noticed that there were a lot of students who wanted to see it done,” he said. “Yet, my biggest inspiration was knowing that the sacrifice was for Mary and for all the devotions to Mary that this grotto could inspire in the future.”

Grotto honors Br. Kampshof
The original Maryknoll Grotto project began in the year 1919 as a response to a smallpox epidemic that began to ravage Conception Seminary College. Benedictine Brother Herman Kampshof, one of the monks assigned to care for the seminarians, sought the aid of the Blessed Mother. He promised her (with the permission of the abbot) that if none of the young men died, a grotto would be built in thanksgiving for the intercession she had shown.
It came as no surprise to Brother Herman when all of the men returned to proper health, and it came as no surprise when the seminarians were eager to aid him in this newfound project. For two years, the seminarians and monks gathered stones and sand on free afternoons and weekends to build up the walls of the grotto, and a statue of Mater Dolorosa (Our Lady of Sorrows) was purchased and painted by Benedictine Father Innocent.
Grotto dedicated in 1921
Finally, after many hours of service to the Blessed Mother, the grotto was dedicated on May 4, 1921, with a solemn procession consisting of the monks, seminarians, and laity of the Conception community.
The grotto endured the wrath of Mother Nature for many years, yet she eventually took her toll on the grotto. The Maryknoll Grotto eventually collapsed and was then forgotten for many years. During the 2008-2009 school year, after hearing about the history of the grotto, seminarian Alan Brown made it his goal to rebuild the grotto. Tragically, his project was cut short when he died suddenly of a heart attack in the spring of 2009. Several seminarians vowed to finish Brown’s project, but they were unsuccessful for various reasons. This past fall, under the guidance and support of his chaplain, Kyle Dugan made it his goal to finally complete the revived Maryknoll Grotto project.
Brother seminarians lend a hand
Dugan quickly gained the support of the student community and the monks of Conception Abbey as he made his intentions of rebuilding the grotto known. Carter Zielinski, a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, a sophomore at Conception Seminary College, and one of the key contributors in the grotto project, believes that the support that Dugan gained was found in his servant leadership style.
“Kyle’s leadership was especially impressive because of the sacrifices he had to make,” Zielinski said, “and it was much easier for those volunteering to give of our Tuesdays and Saturdays when he was willing to give almost every block of spare time that he had to finding supplies, talking to the groundskeeper, asking for funds, or attending to any other unexpected needs.”
The team spent much of its time moving stone, digging and laying the foundation, building the grotto with collected stone, and working on various other small details. Surprisingly, most of the seminarians, including Dugan, had little or no experience with the work that would be necessary to build a grotto. However, he and the others were blessed to be under the guidance of Benedictine Brother Placid Dale.
Benedictine brother lends his expertise
“Brother Placid had been involved since Alan Brown came up with the idea. He had all the plans and ideas in his head so it helped to turn to him and see what direction we needed to go,” Dugan said.
There were many times Dugan and those around him could have thrown in the towel and quit, but their commitment never failed. Dugan continued, “There were a few times when I thought we weren’t going to finish. It was so much work for what seemed like so little time.”
Yet, he believed that it was the group’s trust in God’s providential power that pushed them forward, saying, “There were many times when we just had to trust that we were building it right.”
Zielinski gives credit for the group’s perseverance and resilience to their devotion to the Blessed Mother. “It was our fraternal zeal for serving the Blessed Mother that boosted our determination all the more.”
Benedictine Father Samuel Russell, president-rector of Conception Seminary College, set the re-dedication date for May 4, 2012, exactly 91 years since the original date of dedication, and he assigned Father Ralph O’Donnell, vice rector and dean of students, to lead the dedication procession and ceremony.
Most of student body helped re-dedicate grotto
About three-fourths of the student body processed behind Father O’Donnell while praying the rosary, chanting Marian litanies, and singing Marian hymns. As the students arrived at the grotto, there was a common feeling of awe for the physical and spiritual beauty that this new Maryknoll Grotto possessed. “I can vividly remember seeing my brother seminarians’ admiration for the Blessed Mother as they took turns praying a Hail Mary in front of it,” recalls Zielinski. “I could tell at that moment that this grotto was a creation that would be helpful for cultivating Marian devotions for seminarians for years to come.”
Even though the Maryknoll Grotto has been rededicated, Dugan still has more plans for the grotto as he enters his senior year at Conception Seminary College. He plans to add another layer of stone to the grotto structure, and he wants to continue to improve the landscaping around the grotto by planting rose bushes, adding benches, and placing a wrought iron fence around the grotto’s perimeter.
Dugan will continue to rely on the countless hours of dedicated work and effort of selfless seminarians that possess the same enthusiasm as their leader to finish the project that was revived by the late Alan Brown.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do this without my brother seminarians,” he said. “Anything is possible with God, even for a group of inexperienced college seminarians to build a tall stone grotto!”
The author is a senior at Conception and a seminarian for the Diocese of Wichita.