Shortly after Saint
Meinrad Archabbey was founded by two Benedictine monks from
Switzerland, the new foundation began its work of preparing men for
In those early days, monks and students discovered a favorite
spot for hikes, picnics and games on a nearby wooded hill. Fr.
Chrysostom Foffa, OSB, named the site Monte Cassino, after the
great abbey in Italy where St. Benedict had originated European
monasticism in the sixth century.
In the autumn of 1857, a monk and some seminary students
attached an image of the Immaculate Conception to an oak tree near
the entrance to the grove. In the style of a wayside shrine, they
carved a niche in the oak tree and protected the lithograph print
of Mary with a crude wooden roof.
Devotion to Our Lady Spreads
During the mid-19th century, devotion to Mary at
the little shrine grew. Travelers, farmers, immigrants and soldiers
climbed Monte Cassino Hill to ask for Our Lady's intercession and
By 1866, the seminary's first rector, Fr. Isidor Hobi, OSB,
decided that a more worthy expression of the growing devotion was
needed. He and the seminarians built a 12'x14' frame building about
150 feet west of the present structure. They installed the simple
image of the Immaculate Conception in this new chapel.
A year later, sandstone of excellent quality was discovered on
Monte Cassino Hill. When the sandstone was excavated for use in
erecting monastery and school buildings, Saint Meinrad's superior
ordered the first stones to be set aside for a permanent chapel at
Shrine Dedicated in 1870
The chapel's design was based on a picture of the early shrine
of Our Lady at Einsiedeln, the motherhouse of Saint Meinrad
Archabbey. Although only the sanctuary section was finished, the
new chapel was dedicated on May 1, 1870. The rest was completed in
During the dedication, a wooden statue of the Blessed Virgin and
Child, hand carved in Switzerland, was blessed and installed above
the altar, where it remains today.
About 2,000 attended the celebration. The event was marked with
a festive procession, singing, cannon blasts, and prayer by the
monks, students and Catholics who attended from neighboring
The dedication of the new chapel nurtured local piety. When an
epidemic of smallpox threatened the area in the winter of 1871, the
community was quick to turn to Our Lady of Monte Cassino.
The first cases of smallpox broke out before
Christmas. Several in the village had died and, during the
holidays, four persons became infected at Saint Meinrad. As more
cases of the disease were discovered, the worst was feared.
On January 5, all the students who could walk went on a
pilgrimage to Monte Cassino, where a solemn votive Mass was
offered. The pilgrimage was repeated on the last day of the novena
(January 13). Since the novena was begun, not a single case of
smallpox broke out. In thanksgiving, Saint Meinrad students make a
pilgrimage to Monte Cassino each year around January 13.
Through the years, other reports of cures have been attributed
to Our Lady's intercession. But it is not healings and claims of
cures that make Monte Cassino a holy place. Rather, it is the faith
and devotion of the visitors and pilgrims who come to pray or
reflect on their faith lives, seeking to become closer to God.