Posted: Dec 01, 2023
Sister Louis Gabriel and the Hurricane Grotto of Key West

Guardian Angel. Shepherd. God is my co-pilot.  In Key West there is such a Protector.  She is Sister Mary Louis Gabriel. At the The Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea at the corner of Truman Ave and Windsor Lane, stands the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto, defending Key West from hurricanes since 1922. The Grotto is the vision and design of Sister Gabriel and has kept deadly hurricanes away from the people of Key West to this day. Hurricane season runs June 1st to November 30th. No storms in the Keys since 2017!



Sister Mary Louis Gabriel (originally Marie Rousseau) entered into the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary on the Feast of the Ascension, May 25, 1897. The Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary were one of the first Canadian congregations of women religious dedicated to the ministry of education. Theirs is a special concern for poor and disadvantaged women and children.


The Grotto was dedicated on May 25, 1922. Tradition tells us that Sister Gabriel is said to have remarked on that dedication day that as long as the Grotto stood, “Key West would never experience the full brunt of a hurricane.”

Sister Gabriel arrives in 1897



In 1897, three weeks after becoming a nun, Sister Gabriel arived in Key West.  She came to teach and to serve at the Catholic School that had opened in 1868 as a school for girls and as a convent. It was the first Catholic School in the state of Florida.


Talk of hurricanes is part of the fabric of Key West. The Great Havana Hurricane of 1846, its indiscriminate destruction of property and the uprooting of the Key West cemetery, was likely still discussed in 1897 by the old Conchs - as if it had happened only yesterday.


Sister Gabriel then experienced a trio of devasting hurricanes; the Hurricane of 1909, the 1910 Cuba Hurricane and 1919 Florida Keys Hurricane. At the time, Key West was a populous and prosperous town.  Henry Flagler's Overseas Railroad brought passengers from New York all the way to downtown Key West. But the simple homes and structures were no match for flood tides and 100+ mph winds.

Enough is Enough


Those of you who have experienced schooling under the steel eye and starched brow of a Catholic nun know full well that when a nun proclaims "Enough" you continue at your own peril.

Sister Gabriel said "Enough" to hurricanes and took it upon herself to build an enveloping wall of God's protective mercy over the people of Key West - saints and sinners all entwined.

No standing on religion


Schoolchildren collected rocks from the school grounds to make up the high arching grotto and the rock seats and the rock kneelers that face the grotto. Key Westers of every and of no faith brought rocks and cement and every other material to build the grotto. The Grotto is open to all, all day and all night. No gate separates the grotto from any who venture by. There is nothing fancy about the grotto. Nothing elaborate. It's not the facade outside but the intentions inside.

Coming forward to today's Key West and, more than one "drinking establishment" in Key West is reputed to have a 48-hour candle on stock to take to the gotto - just in case. That might sound funny but when I evacuated in September 2017 prior to Hurricane Irma I drove past the church and grotto on my way out of town. The lawn in front of the grotto was practically SRO.


When you're warding off a hurricane, whether you are religious or not, you best take advantage of every opportunity to put the odds in your favor!



To be sure, hurricanes have struck in and around Key West on multiple occasions since 1922.  Most recently, Hurricane Georges (wind) struck in September 1998, Hurricane Irene (wind) nearby to the west in October 1999, Hurricane Wilma (flood) in October 2005 and Hurricane Irma (wind) nearby to the east in September 2017.


Georges knocked down many untrimmed trees, including a 30' tall poinciana on to the roof of my house. Wilma was rough for a lot of people.  Flooding occured across 70% of the island. Even so, homes stood and were rebuilt. Ultimately, as far as I know, no lives have been lost in Key West since 1922. November 30 marks the official end to the hurricane season with zero storms in the Keys in 2023. We pray thee continue.


Hurricane season begins on June 1st.  May we be moved by the example of Sister Louis Gabriel who invoked the help of the Blessed Virgin Mary to keep us safe from hurricanes.  Let us pray - Hail Mary full of Grace the Lord is with Thee  ...


If you have any comments or questions, please contact me here.


A special Thank You to Bob Bernreuter, parishoner of St. Mary's, resident historian for the parish and author of Star of the Sea, a History of The Basilica St. Mary Star of the Sea.


Good luck!


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