The 80th anniversary of the inauguration of a place that for decades had been an icon of hope and spiritual devotion for an entire community will pass by quietly this year.

Located on the corner of Rathdowne and Pelham Street, Carlton, the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes was for many years a pilgrimage destination and an inevitable backdrop for photographs that immortalised the most important moments of Italian families: weddings, baptisms, communions, confirmations and birthdays. Even the schoolchildren of the former annexed St George's School posed year after year in front of the cave in their uniforms or sports clothing.

With the dispersion of the Italian community of Carlton towards other city suburbs and the closure of the school, the centralising force of the Madonna in her niche dug in the cave has gradually lost its intensity.

These days the grotto can only be visited by appointment, as it forms part of Corpus Christi College, the regional seminary for Victoria and Tasmania. The original bluestone church of St George's Parish is now the seminary chapel and St George's was eventually renamed Sacred Heart Church.

Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto 1
Many people would stop and pray at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. (Photo from 1941)

Ten years ago, for the 70th anniversary of the construction of the cave, Amelia Dozzi participated in the commemoration organised by Corpus Christi College.

‘It was a very heartfelt event, starting with the Holy Mass in the church, followed by the blessing of the grotto, and refreshments in the seminary. Fr Stanley (Rector of Corpus Christi College) was very interested in knowing all of us descendants of those who had contributed to the construction of the cave’, says Amelia, whose parents and grandparents, together with many other families of Friulian origin then residing and Carlton, played an important role in the construction and enhancement of the work.

Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto 2
On the right is Giovanni Rangan from Arba, Friuli, with another Friulian, unidentified (but thought to be Mr Mongiat). Pictured in front of the grotto in 1941.

‘There were about 280 Italian families in Carlton in those years,' recalls Amelia, 'and at least a quarter of these had emigrated from Friuli. Most of the men worked in construction, and used the traditions and experiences acquired in Italy to contribute to urban development and suburban area of ​​Melbourne.’

In the 1930s, Archbishop Daniel Mannix invited Fr Ugo Modotti SJ, also from Friuli, Italy, to lead the parish of St George's, Carlton and support the growing Italian population.

Fr Modotti is known for the unmatched dedication with which he assisted Italian families in the very difficult and turbulent years of the Depression and then of the Second World War. The cave remains a tangible trace of his civil and spiritual commitment as it was Fr Modotti who mobilised locals to create the Marian grotto, as a sign of faith and solidarity with all Italian believers and Australians.

'All the material used in the construction of the work had been donated by the community, and the work was on a voluntary basis, most of which was carried out by Friulian families such as Dozzi, Miotto, Mongiat, Rangan, Rigutto, Romanin,' explains Amelia, whose grandfather Giovanni Rangan had founded the construction company, G. Rangan and Son, in Carlton in the 1930s.

The inauguration of the cave in August 1941 lit a light of hope in the community during the dark years of the Second World War. Eighty years later, sailing in the fog of a pandemic, her message is more relevant than ever.

Grotto Corpus Christi College

This article first appeared in Il Globo and has been adapted for Melbourne Catholic.