Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Archaeology of Death: The Renews Grotto

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This blog post was written by Jasper Pritchard, for the Archaeology of Death undergraduate course in Fall 2020 at Memorial University of Newfoundland, taught by Dr. Meghan Burchell. They graciously allowed it to be posted on Spade & the Grave, thanks Jasper!

By all accounts, the town of Renews is a serene landscape. Like many spots on the Southern Shore, the quiet but powerful presence of the sea envelops this small community like a blanket, and reminders of Newfoundland history are wrapped up with the clotheslines and sheds that make up daily life. Just one hour from the city of St.John’s, it’s a must visit when I make a day trip up the shore. I remember vividly when my friend Kathleen and I came upon it in 2015. In exchange for using her photos for this assignment I must refer to her as “my amazing, wonderful friend Kathleen”. Kathleen had taken me out to Calvert to meet her grandparents and we made a few stops before and after. We were nearing Renews and looking for a spot to turn around when we spotted an orange sign that read “RENEWS GROTTO” with an arrow pointing to the left. I didn’t even know what a grotto was at that point but decided I should find out.

We spent some time puttering around trying to find it. No one seemed to be around. There was a white shed with “COME IN BYE” written in red paint across the door, another with an abandoned coke vending machine sitting outside it that looked at least 30 years old. Long dead remains of a moose, and a dog gnawing at the pelt somehow did not detract from the picturesque quality of the town, if anything it added something.

Figure 1: A very scary shed, courtesy of Kathleen Walsh

Eventually we found the church, a white building with a green roof. It’s clearly old but well maintained. No one is here either and we proceed on to the grotto. My immediate impression is it would not look out of place in a small town in Europe. A white marble statue of the virgin Mary stands above surrounded by climbing ivy while a serene stream with three statues lazily trickles nearby, a wooden bridge above it. I was unsurprised during my research to find this is a replica of the Lady of Lourdes from France [i]. The stream even has water imported from that site put into it, thought to have healing powers. Underneath the statue is a memorial inscription, stating its history. To the left is a glass case for candles and a statue of blessed Bernadette, the girl from Lourdes who reported visions of Mary by the river. Just beyond the wooden bridge is a church graveyard. The stones are neat, red blocks with names like “Sister Ignatus”. When telling Kathleen I was writing about Renews she asked why, her mother piped up “Sure it must be the grotto, nothing else in Renews.” While not entirely true (the museum in this area reopened in 2018), the Grotto remains an extremely dense spot of knowledge and memory for the residents of this town on the Southern Shore.

Figure 2: The Virgin Mary at Mass Rock grotto, courtesy of Kathleen Walsh.

The grotto in Renews is formed on a site called “Mass Rock” so named for its position as a place of worship when penal law saw the Catholic faith restricted in Newfoundland, the mid 1700s. Oral history states that this was a secret gathering place to celebrate mass and prayer while watching for British authorities [ii]. I can see why, the landscape from this point slopes down into the harbour, and is hidden by a steeper hill. It makes a great spot if someone didn’t want to be found. I am reminded that the tensions between Catholics and Protestants, at least where Ireland and Britain are concerned, are an extension of the colonial relationship Britain had with Ireland, and it seems somewhat ironic that their plight as a colonized people would follow them to a land where they themselves were the colonizers, though still under British rule.

The legend of Mass Rock made the place an important spiritual and cultural hub, and its significance was made physical when the grotto began to be built in 1927 by Reverend McCarthy and builder Pat Dunne [iii]. The building took a year with the help of local labour.

The memorial stone reads:

“Grotto de Lourdes on Mass Rock
In loving memory of my parents and sisters
MSGR. C.A. McCarthy
Our Lady of Lourdes
Pray for us
Erected 1927
According to local
tradition, mass was
celebrated at this rock
in penal days, about 1750
hence it is called the
“Mass Rock”
It is the only rock
Regarding which we
Have such a tradition
In this country.”

What piqued my interest about this memorial was its position as a community hub of history and culture as well as a personal memorial. Reverend McCarthy seems to want to place his own loved ones within the narrative of the history of Renews, even though he himself was from Ireland. The purpose of the memorial is twofold. To commemorate specific people, the Reverend’s family, and the residents of Renews, now long gone, and their actions under oppressive circumstances. All of this symbolized by a replica of a French grotto. I believe this speaks volumes to the place of religion in Newfoundland as a tie to the land and its associated history.

The story does not end there, however. The three statues by the river I mentioned earlier bring another element to the story of the Renews grotto.

Figure 3: Three statues overlooking the pond, courtesy of Kathleen Walsh.

When I originally came across these statues I thought they were merely to add to the serenity of the site, watching lovingly over the stream containing the water of Lourdes. However, these are a much more recent addition. On March 12, 2009, 17 people lost their lives on Cougar Flight 491. One of the victims of this crash was Allison Maher, a resident of Renews. Disasters such as this have great impact wherever they happen, but the damage is magnified in small towns like Renews where everyone knows each other. This memorial, unmarked unlike the one underneath the virgin Mary, seems like it was meant just for them. Speaking not of a large historical event but a personal loss. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I, as an outsider, did not immediately grasp its significance. In a place where tourists are not uncommon, it seems hidden in plain sight, and still connected to this place of historical significance.

In this one area, a grotto, a church, a graveyard, a memorial stone, and three memorial statues arose where once was only a rock. A very important rock, but a rock nonetheless. This density of memory across time speaks to the power of oral history and legend in small communities and tells us about what prompts people to continue tying their memories to land. Religion allowed residents of Renews over the past centuries to retain their connections to Europe and defy colonial powers to maintain and develop their identities. These connections continue to inspire a reverence for this area and continued memorialization.  

[i] “Renews and its Grotto” in Grotto of our Lady of Lourdes, Trade Printers and Publishers Ltd



Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

One thought on “Archaeology of Death: The Renews Grotto

  1. Pingback: Archaeology of Death: Student Blog Post Mini-Series | Spade & the Grave

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