Back in October I got to visit the mythed "Mary XYZ" basement grotto, which is inside the basement of a privately owned home in Galena, Illinois. (Thank you to the home's current owners who were kind enough to let me snoop around) ! The grotto was built by a woman named Olivia Perrault, probably in the 1930s. She lived from 1876-1952. The details of her story are somewhat hazy- the owners believe that she wanted to become a nun, but her father would not allow it. There may have been some type of heartbreak involved- whatever the case may be, she was spotted in her later years walking the streets of Galena dressed as a nun, and may have had a disconcerting impression on others… Somewhere along the line, she was dubbed "Mary XYZ"...which is how I first heard about her through a local antique store owner. This is not a flashy grotto, but contains many unexpected surprises- a colorful handmade flowerpot, a glass dog head- a piece from the World’s Fair (although we couldn’t find it during my visit). The grotto contains many ledges and gracefully arranged upturned seashells that I imagine were used as votive candle holders, and it's easy to imagine the grotto at night, only lit by the atmospheric flicker of candlelight, being used a meditative prayer chamber.
My favorite spot was a windowsill containing a collection of marbles surrounded by many small pieces of weathered glass points. The more I look at the scene, the more lifelike it becomes- the little glass points become little people in robes, gathered around a body of water (the marbles) The strange stone orbs jutting out from the sides of the windowsill peer over them. I might be reading too much into it, but for me it's the most captivating area.
Now that I’ve seen the grotto I’m only more curious- did she make it all by herself? How often did she spend time there? Was she praying for something in particular? Perhaps some more information will come to light. And yes, in case you were wondering- the practically-minded owners of the house are currently using the space as an exercise room! They've owned the home for just over 3 years and the grotto was only incidental to their decision to purchase it. So while not exactly grotto fanatics, they are planning on keeping the grotto in tact and may even be adding some additions of their own. Head over to the Mary XYZ Grotto Page to see the rest of the photos!