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Backyard grotto inspired by iconic Notre Dame landmark

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Chris Casa Santa was inspired by the iconic grotto at the University of Notre Dame in his hometown of South Bend, Indiana, to build his own grotto at his home.

The University of Notre Dame and its iconic grotto have been important in Chris Casa Santa’s life. Inspired by the school’s grotto, he built one of his own in his Middle Tennessee back yard.

Casa Santa grew up in South Bend, Indiana, as a diehard Notre Dame fan. His grandfather even composed the music for the university’s alma mater “Notre Dame, Our Mother.”

As the years passed, the grotto became a meaningful part of his life. “I was around the grotto quite a bit when I lived up there, and I even proposed to my wife there,” he said.

On the 10-year anniversary of that proposal, he got the idea to build a grotto in his own back yard in Middle Tennessee.

“I had a friend who does the masonry work, and there was a place in Nashville that had a big scrap rock pile,” Casa Santa said. “If you could haul it, you could have it. And so I ended up getting about 17 tons of rock. We put it together in time for the anniversary and had an opening party.”

The initial project was completed in 2004, and Casa Santa has slowly added to it as the years went on. He works as a guidance counselor in the elementary school system on the U.S. Army post at Fort Campbell, so he has to save his ideas for the summer when he has the most time. “I keep getting ideas, and say let’s do this. The guy who puts it together just has to scratch his head.”

Since that initial project, Casa Santa has added an entrance, the Ten Commandments, and a crucifix. After these additions, the grotto is now made up of more than 50 tons of rock.

He and his wife Tricia use the space as a quiet place to pray while out in the yard. “I sit there at the grotto and meditate and say thank you for this. The Lord has been good,” Casa Santa said.

About five years ago, the Seminarians Education Dinner and Auction was looking for silent auction items, and Casa Santa decided to offer a Mass and group dinner at his grotto. It was a hit at the auction, and he has decided to offer it again every year since.

The item has brought in from $800 to $1,600 in the past, and this year dinner and Mass with Father Patrick Kibby, the senior priest at St. Henry Church, at the grotto brought in $1,050. For the first several years, the same person won the auction item every year. “The individual who purchased it the first time liked it so much that he keeps buying it to come back.” Chris and Tricia Casa Santa have been parishioners at the Cathedral of the Incarnation for more than 30 years. He will be retiring at the end of this school year after 41 years in the U.S. Department of Defense school system.

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