Day Trips

The beautiful and peaceful Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto in Rio Grande City is steeped in history, religious and otherwise

Franco Tejas
Franco Tejas (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto in Rio Grande City has an international history. Built to resemble the shrine of Lourdes in Southern France, the man-made cave is as peaceful as it is beautiful.

Decorated with native plants from the surrounding desert, the artificial hillside was constructed 80 years ago by a German-born priest. The Rev. Gustav Gollbach immigrated to Texas soon after his ordination in 1906. For nearly 20 years he served in churches around Texas before being sent to the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Rio Grande City, where he was pastor for 13 years. He passed away in 1955 at the age of 77.

A member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate order, Gollbach built much of the mountain himself. The rocks were gathered from around Roma with petrified wood found near Escobares. Concrete posts were etched to look like tree branches.

In the center of the grotto, a 7-foot-tall statue of the Madonna in a flowing white gown with a blue sash looks down on a life-sized statue of the poor French peasant girl kneeling in prayer. The grotto is 33 feet high and 90 feet wide with cacti growing from the walls to give it a very natural appearance.

The story goes that 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous was approached by the Virgin Mary as she and friends were gathering firewood in 1858. When Bernadette scratched in the ground on the hillside, a spring bubbled to the surface that has run continuously since. The waters are said to be a cure for spiritual and physical infirmities.

The French waters attract more pilgrims than any other Christian shrine in the world. It is highly likely that the Rev. Gollbach visited the shrine before traveling to America. Famous replicas of the grotto have also been built in New York, Texas, Indiana, and Pennsylvania.

The Oblate order has a long history of work in Texas, especially the Rio Grande Valley between Laredo and Brownsville. Founded in France in 1816, the Oblate order arrived at the mouth of the Rio Grande soon after Texas joined the Union. The black-robed priests built missions, established schools, and fought for social justice in a rugged land where the six-shooter was often the law.

Often called the "Cavalry of Christ," the priests' primary mission was riding on horseback to ranch settlements where they ministered to the needy. La Lomita Chapel on the banks of the Rio Grande off of FM 1016 gave the town of Mission its name. Once a stop on the traveling priests' circuit, the tiny church is preserved in a city park.

The Rev. Pierre Yves Keralum was an Oblate priest who traveled the lawless borderlands for 20 years and is being considered for sainthood. The French-born priest built many of the first churches in the valley. In his 50s, nearly blind and in ill health, the Rev. Keralum disappeared near the present-day town of Mercedes. Ten years later, cowboys found his bones and personal property.

In later years the Oblate padres helped organize the first farmworkers' union in Texas at Crystal City. They lobbied local growers and ranchers to pay their workers living wages and provide schools. From their headquarters in San Antonio, the order now has missions in four other states, as well as Mexico and Zambia.

Rio Grande City, seat of Starr County and one of the oldest settlements along the river, is rich in Texas history. It was once a port for steamboats that worked the river from Brownsville. Many of the buildings of Fort Ringgold (1849-1944) remain standing and open to the public. La Borde House, 601 E. Main St., is a restored seven-bedroom hotel and one of the oldest buildings still in use in the Valley.

Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto in Rio Grande City is across the street from the Starr County Courthouse and behind the Immaculate Conception Church at 101 E. Third at North Britton Avenue. The shrine is open free of charge to the public except during services. At night the handcrafted hill is bathed in floodlights that give it a soft glow.

823rd in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips" 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto, The Rev. Gustav Gollbach, Bernadette Soubirous, the Rev. Pierre Yves Keralum

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