The story of this beautiful shrine begins at the end of the 19th century, with a young boy who learned that his mother lay near death after giving birth to a daughter. In tears, the boy ran to the little parish church in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. He prayed for his mother’s life, promising that if she were spared he would one day undertake a great work for the Church. Both his mother and baby sister survived. The future Father Ambrose Mayer never forgot his promise.
As a young man Ambrose joined the Servite Order and in 1918 was sent to minister as the first Servite pastor in the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon. He carried with him the desire to fulfill his childhood promise, often disclosing to his associates his dream of finding a site on which to build a suitable tribute to Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Fr. Mayer came across some acreage in 1923 which was owned by the Union Pacific Railroad Company. The property was a rugged, untamed wilderness that was once a quarry used to obtain rock for rail beds, and was currently scheduled for sale as residential property. He saw this as a natural cathedral which, once cleaned up, was perfect for the realization of his dream.
Although the asking price was $48,000, Fr. Mayer was not deterred. With the enthusiastic encouragement and approval of Portland Archbishop Alexander Christie, Fr. Mayer bid all that he had—$3,000—which was accepted as an initial down payment. A national campaign provided the balance of the funds.
Crowning the initiation of the project was a letter from Pope Pius XI, written in his own hand, imparting a Special Apostolic Blessing to all those who “in any way or measure, show their good will and assist in erecting the Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother in Portland.”
In September of 1923, the work began. A cave was carved out of the 110-foot basalt cliffside, and a stone altar built, above which was placed a depiction of Mary holding the body of her son after his crucifixion. A replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà was added several years later.
On May 29, 1924, three thousand people gathered for the first Mass and dedication of the Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother. At the blessing, Archbishop Alexander Christie offered this prayer:
“Let this be a sanctuary of peace for all peoples of the earth and surely in this day a sanctuary is needed. Torn with differences, strife, and grief, the world needs sanctuary where the human spirit can seek peace and consolation.”
The Chapel of Mary, Mother of the Human Race, was dedicated in 1955 by Portland Archbishop Edward D. Howard. The chapel was designed by L. L. Dougan of Dougan & Heims, Architects.
In 1983 the shrine was designated a National Sanctuary. Through the years, more than ten million visitors have marveled at The Grotto’s serene environment. Today, we continue to welcome people from around the world, people of all faiths and no faith. Without exception our visitors speak of the peace they experience here in the spiritual and natural beauty of this sanctuary, where God’s presence abounds and where special tribute is given to Mary, the Sorrowful Mother of Jesus.
The Grotto continues to grow over the years to meet the needs of the people in an ever-changing world. The dream, work and promise of one man have become the ministry of all who serve here.