Church grotto offers hurricane protection in Key West

KEY WEST, FLA. (WSVN) - When hurricane season comes around, South Florida residents prepare in different ways. Some go shopping and prepare their homes, but in Key West, they also pray.

“People will be coming here throughout the night and be praying for the protection of their family and friends,” said church historian Bob Bernreuter.

Nestled behind the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea is a stone grotto, built with coral rock and blessed by a very special nun.

“Sister Louis Gabriel came to Key West right after she became a nun in 1897,” said Bernreuter.

The young nun came to Key West to run the church school.

She learned quickly about the devastation of hurricanes.

“She went through three horrific hurricanes in Key West in 1909, 1910 and 1919,” said Bernreuter. “In the 1919 hurricane, hundreds of people were killed on the island. It was devastating.”

After the 1919 hurricane, she decided to build a grotto. She and the other nuns, with help from people of all faiths, built it by hand.

“Many of the stones were gathered right here on the grounds,” said Bernreuter. “Some came from donations, other people bringing stones over for her to cement in.”

There are built-in steps leading to a statue of the Virgin Mary and a shrine for people to offer up their prayers, but it was Sister Louis Gabriel who may have offered the most important prayer of all.

“She was overheard to say when the grotto was dedicated on that day, that as long as this grotto stands, no more severe storms will ever hit Key West,” said Bernreuter.

And since the grotto was dedicated in 1922, Key West has not been hit by a devastating storm.

“We’ve been very, very blessed,” said Bernreuter. “If you look at the history of hurricanes in Key West, you’ll see that over the years it’s just a matter of time before a devastating storm wrecks the island and destroys buildings and sinks ships, kills people, and it’s never happened since this grotto has been built.”

So generation after generation, the grotto has been the place where the faithful have knelt, lit candles and prayed for a peaceful hurricane season, and so far they have indeed been spared a killer storm. “The fact that we have been leads a lot of credibility to it,” said Bernreuter. “I believe it, and you better believe it.”

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