Newman Center seniors build grotto

Grant Hemphill, a spring 2022 graduate of the University of Iowa, kneels next to the new grotto at Newman Catholic Student Center in Iowa City.

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

IOWA CITY — University of Iowa students will now see more of Mary at the Newman Center, thanks to the class of ’22, which has built a grotto there.

The grotto’s creation was the result of several conversations between students, said Grant Hemphill, a spring ’22 graduate. “We acknowledged a need for beautiful (religious) art that taps into Catholic culture and honors our Blessed Mother,” he said. “The best way to do that would be to create something that would last for generations to come.”

This is a photo of the Newman Center’s grotto at night.

Newman Center members from the spring ’22 and fall ’22 classes donated more than $700 toward the purchase of a statue and grotto materials. Current and former students offered input on the design. Priest Director Father Jeff Belger and Newman Center staff suggested building the grotto in the garden between the former convent and the sanctuary. The garden made the ad-hoc design team think of the Garden of Gethsemane, the place of Jesus’ agony, “so we thought Our Lady of Seven Sorrows would be a great image to find a statue of,” Hemphill said.


The class of ’22 purchased a statue from an artist on Etsy and limestone for the arch locally. Leftover bricks from the construction of the Newman Center’s foundation in the late 1980s provided the foundation for the grotto. Hemphill appreciates the significance in connecting pieces from the original foundation to the grotto “as we are coming forward from that foundation.”

In late August and early September, students with landscaping or construction experience volunteered to help construct the foundation and arch. Some helped with design, others with the labor. The leftover money will go toward adding flowers in the future. “They will be perennials, so there will always be flowers out for Mary,” Hemphill said. The grotto is visible through the Newman Center’s sanctuary windows.

While class gifts are not a tradition at Newman Center, Hemphill hopes future classes will consider the needs of the center and do what they can to help future students in their faith journeys.

Father Belger blessed the grotto after Thursday Night Mass Sept. 15 — the feast day of Our Lady of Sorrows — with more than 100 people in attendance. He said the students’ initiative in building the grotto is indicative of a paradigm shift in college ministry. In the past, ministries focused on what their leaders could do for the students. Now, it’s about helping students become “disciple makers” who love the Catholic faith and want to spread it to others. “I think this speaks volumes,” Father Belger said of the grotto.

Kristie Wert, director of development, said the grotto is a great testament to the class of ’22’s “love for their faith and for the impact that the Newman Center had on their college years.”

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