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By Sean Bloomfield, CatholicShop.com, September 9, 2017
If forecasters are correct, the iconic island town of Key West in the Florida Keys is about to be devastated by Hurricane Irma’s unprecedented fury.
But according to a nun who lived on Key West over a century ago, those forecasters might be wrong.
As a native Floridian, the Florida Keys have been a source of adventure and inspiration throughout my life. I can’t count how many times I’ve made the 5-hour trip from my hometown on the east coast of Central Florida to soak up the laid-back island lifestyle and clear ocean waters. It’s one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
In fact, I was just there two months ago on a family vacation. After a week of catching mahi and grouper, snorkeling the coral reefs among Goliath Grouper and sharks, and reading books in gently-swinging hammocks beneath the palm trees, my children can now relate to what makes the Keys so special to me. We stayed at my aunt and uncle’s home in the Keys, which they’ve owned for decades. Thankfully they are not at the house now, but they’re afraid that little will be left of it after Irma pushes through.
“We can only hope,” said my uncle. “But then again, if the storm turns away from us, it will still hit someone else. It’s a sad situation either way.”
The part of Florida where I live will also experience hurricane-force conditions, but forecasters don’t expect Irma to be nearly as catastrophic here as she will be in the southern region of the state, or as she was in the Caribbean.
I’ve been listening to the weather reports while preparing our home for the storm, and for the past several days, the Keys have been a focal point.
Half of Key West, said one forecaster, could be under water from the storm surge. Another said that it would take “a miracle” for Key West to avoid major damage from Irma.
Perhaps they haven’t heard of the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto in Key West.
My wife and I stumbled upon this beautiful little shrine during our honeymoon many years ago, and I’ve gone there to pray many times since. But I doubt there have ever been more fervent prayers as the ones being sent up from there now.
Adjoining the aptly-named St. Mary Star of the Sea Basilica, the grotto was modeled after the rocky alcove in Lourdes, France,where the Virgin Mary appeared in 1858. As such, it features a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes and one of Bernadette, the visionary who saw her.
The Key West grotto was dedicated on May 25, 1922, the Feast of the Ascension and the 25th anniversary of Sister Louis Gabriel’s entrance into the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.
Sister Gabriel had ministered in Key West since arriving there on August 25, 1897. In those days, the island seemed to be a magnet for smugglers, pirates, sailors, and major hurricanes. In fact, by 1922, Sister Gabriel had survived three catastrophic hurricanes which killed numerous people and all but wiped Key West off the map.
The terror of the storms and their heartbreaking aftermath inspired Sister Gabriel to call on the Virgin Mary for protection. She designed the grotto and enlisted help to gather natural rock from the church grounds and throughout the island.
On the dedication day, Sister Gabriel reportedly said, “As long as this grotto stands, Key West will never experience the full brunt of a hurricane.”
So far, she’s been right. Key West has not experienced a catastrophic storm since that day in 1922, which is surprising given the number of major hurricanes that pass through this part of the Atlantic Ocean every year.
But what about Irma? Key West is already feeling the effects of one of the most powerful storms in history, and forecasters are anything but optimistic.
After Irma’s path zeroed in on the Florida Straits, the people of Key West began streaming to the outdoor grotto at all hours to light candles and pray, just as they have done in the past whenever catastrophe seemed imminent.
As someone who has spent much of his life on the water, I, too, have often prayed for the Virgin Mary’s intercession to ensure a safe passage through an ocean squall or the like. It’s become almost automatic for me to address her as Star of the Sea, the English translation of the Latin title Stella Maris. We even named our production company Stella Mar Films because we make movies about apparitions of the Virgin Mary. Learn about our recent film, Apparition Hill.
Imploring the Virgin Mary for help amid a hopeless situation goes back to the earliest days of the Church, and Star of the Seahas been used as one of her titles more than a thousand years. Mary is believed to intercede as a protector of seafarers, but the name is also a symbolic reference to Mary’s role as a “guiding star.”
In the 9th century, for example, Paschasius Roberts wrote that Mary is the “Star of the Sea” to be followed on the way to Christ, “lest we capsize amid the storm-tossed waves of the sea.”
And, in the 12th Century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote: “If the winds of temptation arise; If you are driven upon the rocks of tribulation, look to the star, call on Mary; If you are tossed upon the waves of pride, of ambition, of envy, of rivalry, look to the star, call on Mary. Should anger, or avarice, or fleshly desire violently assail the frail vessel of your soul, look at the star, call upon Mary.”
Built in 1904, the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea, where the grotto is located, is what’s known in the Catholic Church as a Minor Basilica. It features slatted shutters to catch the ever-constant sea breeze and sits on lush tropical grounds amid Key West’s iconic historic houses and buildings. Behind the altar is a stained-glass window that depicts Our Lady as Stella Maris.
The Basilica belongs to one of the oldest Catholic parishes in the state of Florida, and the oldest parish in the Archdiocese of Miami. Although the first Catholic presence in the Florida Keys was established by Spanish Jesuits in 1566, it took 300 years for anything permanent to take hold.
In 1851, Rev. John F. Kirby left the Diocese of Savannah and established St. Mary Star of the Sea parish in Key West. The first permanent Catholic Church on Key West was dedicated in 1852, but the present structure was built in 1905 after the original one was destroyed in a fire.
On February 11, 2012, the church was raised to a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote about Stella Maris in his encyclical letter, Spe Salvi: “For over a thousand years, the Church has greeted Mary, the Mother of God, as ‘Star of the Sea’: Ave Maris Stella…Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route…Who more than Mary could be a star of hope for us?”
These days, Key West attracts far more tourists than seafarers. Many of them come to experience the island’s unique history and learn about famous past residents.
Ernest Hemingway was so entranced by Key West when he arrived in the early 1930s that he decided to make it his home. After Hemingway’s death, his home became a museum, and the museum’s curator plans to stay during Hurricane Irma to protect the grounds, as well as the colony of 6-toed “Hemingway cats” that live there.
She’s not the only one. Although Key West is under a mandatory evacuation order, quite a few residents decided not to leave.
Father John Baker, the basilica’s pastor for the past 10 years, is staying at the basilica to be with those who have not evacuated. He plans to ride out the hurricane in the highest part of the rectory building and begin cleaning up immediately after the storm passes.
A bulletin on the basilica’s website reads: “Please join us for Mass, on September 7th and 8th at 7:30 AM, in the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto, as we blanket this island, our nation, and the world in prayer.”
And the following prayer was posted under the notice:
“Creator God, we ask you to calm the wind and the waves of the approaching hurricane and spare those in its path from harm. Help those who are in its way to reach safety. Open our hearts in generosity to all who need help in the coming days. In all things and in all times, help us to remember that even when life seems dark and stormy, you are in the boat with us, guiding us to safety. Amen.”