Way back when I was live-blogging our boring-ass drive home from Chicago, I mentioned that we stopped at a religious-y place and that it would get its own blog post…and then of course it got put on the back-burner. But tonight I finally sorted through the pictures and I AM READY TO GET THIS CHURCHY BLOG POST PARTY STARTED, BOI.
Let’s start with a quick backstory: the first time Henry and I went to Chicago in 2014, I stumbled upon this place on Roadside America unofficially dubbed “Ultraviolet Apocalypse” in Munster, Indiana. I begged Henry to take me here on the way home, but then I saw that it’s only open on SUNDAYS. Ugh, leave it to a church to only be open on Sundays.
What it actually is: the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Monastery founded by Polish friars who emigrated to the US in 1950. But the big ticket item is the man-made grotto on the grounds, which is three-stories tall and fashioned from 250 tons of sponge rock–I had to look this up because I actually thought it was made from geodes. From what I read online, parts of the grotto are illuminated by black light and the photos I saw looked like the holy version of black light posters sold at Spencer’s.
This place was MADE FOR ME. Religious AND tacky? Take me there.
I looked it up again during this last trip and noticed that it said you could call ahead to schedule a tour. So while we were in the Lincoln Park Zoo that Sunday, I made Henry call (begrudgingly so) and he confirmed that the broad in the office said that the grotto would be open, especially since Monday was a holiday (Labor Day).
HOT HOLY FISH FRY, I WAS GOING TO THE GROTTO!
I couldn’t wait to finish breakfast the next morning and set off to Munster, Indiana, which thankfully wasn’t very far out of the way. We rolled up into the mostly empty lot but I did notice the occasional parishioner moving to and fro.
I wanted to save the grotto for last, obv., so we casually strode around the grounds, looking at the Stations of the Cross like we were knew what we doing, and oohing and awing at the statues. I know the general consensus is that I must be a fucking asshole at places like this, but actually, I’m very respectful and truly enjoy being around these things, even though I don’t have a lick of faith left in my Hell-charred bones.
And surprisingly, Chooch is also very interested in these types of places too, and we get a lot of joy out of reading plaques and running our fingers across the cold marble faces of saints we’ve never heard of.
The grounds were so lovely, and it was still early enough in the morning that it felt like fall, so Chooch and I happily wore hoodies.
I love the woodwork of this shrine!
OH SHIT SON, CHALLENGE ACCEPTED.
Except that those steps were so hard and cold, covered in puddles and razor-edged pine needles. I was in pain (which was the point, I guess, because Jesus died on the cross, etc.) and at one point took my hoodie off and tried to use it as knee pads but that proved futile and I only ended up sopping up the puddles with it.
Meanwhile, Chooch scrambled up to the top like he was being chased by Jason Voorhees and then gloated for the next hour because it took me an extra five minutes to pull my fat body up to the top.
But I did it.
Henry, on the other hand, was like, “Nope” and walked around tp the other side where reverence wasn’t required.
My fucked-up knees.
The steps Henry took didn’t go all the way to the top, so he asked us what was up there.
“Um, I don’t know. Jesus on the cross, I guess,” I mumbled, pulling pine needles out of my busted knees.
Beneath this was an underground level which featured Jesus’s tomb, but the door to it was locked. I was half-expecting that though from reading the tips on Roadside America. And it was time to check out the Grotto anyway, so I wasn’t crying too much about it.
EXCEPT THAT THE GROTTO WASN’T OPEN EITHER!!!!!
HENRY!!!!! YOU SAID!!!!
Helpless, we walked back to the parking lot. “Maybe we should look for someone,” I said, and we walked over to the church, which had a few old people inside praying.
“That one guy looks like a priest or something but I AM NOT INTERRUPTING HIM WHILE HE’S PRAYING,” Henry rushed to finish before I could even ask. And the office had a “closed” sign on it.
THE FUCK, HENRY?!
So we hung around in our car like total fucking creeps for the next 30 minutes, deliberating. I didn’t want to leave, not after coming this close after three years of attempts. At some point, an older broad rolled up with a young kid, and we watched them waltz right on into the closed office! So then I got it in my head that she worked there and she became my new target.
So we went into the office too and it was completely dark. We noticed the lady and the boy went into the chapel, which was connected. They were just chilling on a pew and again, Henry was like, “I AM NOT INTERRUPTING PRAYING PEOPLE.”
Back to the car we went. We were just about to leave when another car pulled in and a lady in a pink shirt got out. She also had a small kid with her. The other lady came out of the chapel and was talking to her, so then we deduced that it was actually Pink Shirt who was in charge around there. She was pulling bins out of the back of her minivan, which made us feel like she worked there. Like maybe they were filled with Bible Study props or something.
It became clear that Henry wasn’t going to be proactive about this situation, so Chooch and I got out of the car and approached Pink Shirt.
“Let me guess, you’re here for the Polish school, too!” she asked happily. Immediately, something about her reminded me of Clea Duvall and I felt instantly at ease.
“No, the Grotto actually!” and I dove right into my sob story about how we came from Pittsburgh—-
“—Not just for this, I hope!” she interrupted with a laugh. “I mean, it’s great, but….”
I explained that we were coming home from Chicago, that I had been trying to see this place for years, and that someone in the office told us that it would be open that day but it wasn’t.
“Hmm, you’ll need to see Father [John*]. He’ll be able to help you,” she said.
*(I can’t remember his name, one of the perils in waiting a million weeks to blog about these things. #amateur)
I asked her what he looked like, and she laughed and said, “Polish!” but then she set down her huge plastic bin of Polish school supplies (maybe??) and brought Chooch and me into the office just as Father was emerging from the chapel.
He was a robust older man in shorts and a tshirt and I 100% never would have thought he was the guy I was looking for.
Pink Shirt explained to him our predicament and in a thick, beautiful Polish accent, he exclaimed, “Oh I don’t know who would have told you the grotto was open today!”
I shrugged and said, “My….husband spoke to a woman when he called the office yesterday.” Chooch shot me a sneer when I said ‘husband’ and later I explained that I didn’t to say BOYFRIEND. Husband sounded more legit since we were in a church, and not “Hi we are a couple of heathens and this here is our child born out of wedlock. Toss us them there keys to the grotto.”
“SO YOU LIED,” Chooch pointed out.
CAN IT, CHOOCH.
Father was super harried. Turns out he was the only one there that day, which meant he was getting pulled in a million directions. “Oh boy, let me see,” he sighed, blowing frustrated air up into his face. “Give me five minutes. Uh, go look at the church or something,” and he spun around to see about getting the key.
I LOVED THIS MAN. I loved his earthy accent, I loved his utter refusal to hide the fact that he was seriously annoyed by me and my ill-timed request, I loved that even though he was busy he was willing to pause his actual church work to help some dumb broad from Pittsburgh see a roadside attraction.
Long story still long, Father John found a dude to open the grotto for us! Which was fortuitous to the handful of people who had arrived in the interim and now got to reap the rewards of my relentless puppy dog-eying the Polish father. (He was a friar maybe? I’m not sure.)
No pictures, no words, can do this place justice. Walking into the grotto, I expected to be disappointed. Ok, not disappointed….but maybe the sense that this wasn’t worth the trouble.
Nope. Did not feel this way at all. It was an operatic “ahhhhhhhhhhh!” moment and I immediately began to touch EVERYTHING (later Chooch would point out a sign that said “do not touch the walls.” Oops.
This grandfather/grandson power duo happened to be there as the doors were unlocked, so Chooch and I went in with them and let the little boy be our tour guide. He kept yelling, “GUYS, COME ON!” and his grandfather would just chuckle and say, “Let them go at their own pace.” But we humored the kid and let him tug us through all three levels of the beautiful grotto.
Yessssssssss. I need my basement to look like this.
There were various pieces of quartz and crystal* encrusted in some spots of the walls, which was why I originally thought the walls were made from split open geodes.
* (?? I’m not up on my geology—I did so terribly in my geology class at Pitt because it was during the last trimester of my pregnancy and I didn’t fit in the desk because it had an attached chair so a janitor had to find me another desk and I was having hot flashes constantly so that’s what I think of when I see things like this)
Henry wasn’t with us, and it turns out he was stopped by another guy from the church who didn’t speak English, and that guy went into the closed gift shop and brought out a guide for Henry to borrow. So Henry got to walk through on his own with a book of info. Like he even cared!
After being mesmerized by the grotto, we walked back over to the holy steps to see if the tomb was opened now too and it was!
It was bigger than I imagined, with several alcoves, one of which had the next ultraviolet spot of the whole joint:
It was breathtaking, honestly. Even Henry said he was glad we stopped and things worked out, because it was worth seeing. It made my heart feel so big and swollen for a little bit (probably until around noon when I started to get hungry).
If you ever in the Chicago area, I highly recommend taking the detour to Munster, Indiana. Just make sure if it’s not a Sunday, you’re prepared to hunt down some Polish Fathers for assistance.