Ottumwa grotto honors Mary, past parishioners


By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

OTTUMWA — For nearly 50 years, St. Mary of the Visitation Parish member Regina Harness dreamed of installing a stained glass window in the grotto behind the church. In October, the 94-year-old was able to cross it off her bucket list.

Regina Harness poses for a picture in the grotto at St. Mary Parish in Ottumwa.

“The installation was just the latest chapter in this grotto’s long history,” said Harness, a parishioner since 1945 and the mother of Father Bob Harness, a diocesan priest. The grotto is a tribute to former parishioners, especially those who were members during the time of the second church of St. Mary of the Visitation Parish. The grotto also honors the parish’s patron saint.

The grotto’s story began in the early 1970s — or 100 years before then, depending on how one looks at it. The cement and stone structure is from the bell tower of the former church, which was torn down to make way for the existing church built in 1929, Harness said.


For many years, the structure sat in the backyard of parishioner Madge Herrick. In the early 1970s, the pastor at the time asked Harness about getting it moved to church property. “I asked him why he wanted it, and he said he wanted to make a grotto on the current church’s property for the Blessed Virgin Mary. I told him to get a flatbed truck and we would arrange to have it moved.” Not long after the structure was moved to the church’s property, Harness bought a statue of the Virgin Mary for the grotto.

The original bell tower had one small window where the bell originally hung. Harness wanted to install a “beautiful stained glass window of an angel coming to visit the Virgin Mary.” But this dream was put on the backburner when Harness and her husband, Harold, moved to Florida “for the sunshine and for Harold’s health.” He passed away in 2006, and Regina Harness moved back to Ottumwa not long after.

This is a close-up of the stained glass window in the grotto at St. Mary Parish in Ottumwa.

In early 2018, Harness shared with Pastor Father Jim Betzen her longtime dream of placing a window in the grotto. He referred her to Bovard Studio in Fairfield. The designer used a small figurine of the blessed Virgin that belonged to Harness as inspiration for the design: an angel descending from heaven. “She showed us the initial design on the computer, and I picked out the wings I wanted added to the image,” said Harness, who paid for the stained glass window.

Fr. Betzen enlisted the help of the parish’s restoration committee to put a fence around the grotto and do masonry landscaping. A brick walkway was laid to connect the gate to the existing sidewalk.

The window was installed Oct. 23 behind the Marian statue. “It’s a beautiful window,” Harness said. “You can view the window and grotto behind St. Mary’s; take the alley behind the church and you can see it.”

The gates to the grotto will be opened in the spring after risk of snowfall has passed, Fr. Betzen said.

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