Ribbon cutting and grand opening celebration 4:30 p.m., today, September 8, public open house 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, September 9


BISMARCK, ND — Former Mayor Dr. John Warford and his wife Jennifer, who previously served on the board of trustees at Mary, are lead donors for the university’s new Marian Grotto. The Warfords, people of great generosity and service to the community, were moved by their faith to make this gift to the University of Mary. As their desire grew in honor of the Blessed Mother, the need for a pilgrimage place of honor where students and people from North Dakota, across the country and around the world could come for prayer, praise, reflection and silence, was also in the hearts of the University of a Mary.

“This is a way to support the University of Mary for many generations to come,” said John, who recently served as Dean of the Gary Tharaldson School of Business at Mary. “The presence of the Virgin Mary on the prairie, right where Gift Hill used to stand will be an iconic treasure and a constant reminder to us all of what’s most important in life.”

“Jennifer and John have been dear friends of mine since the first day we met at Cathedral of the Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Bismarck,” said University of Mary President Monsignor James Shea. “To know their leadership firsthand, to serve along John during his time as business dean at Mary, and now this generous gift, is a reminder to us all of their goodness, stewardship and service to the greater community. Not only are we humbled by this gift from John and Jennifer, but it inspired University of Mary students to raise more money to bring the Warford Grotto to completion.”

Senior, Joe McDonald, transferred to the University of Mary from another school as a freshman, thinking he would double major in math and Catholic studies. A funny thing happened to McDonald between then and his junior year. Little did he know at the time his young mind, enthusiasm for this university, and services would be called upon way before he graduated from Mary. Not long after the Warfords expressed interest in their gift for a grotto, administration received overwhelming interest and an expressed desire from the student body to have something iconic and beautiful be erected as a campus landmark—University of Mary President Monsignor James Shea, inspired by the Warfords’ gift and the students’ desire, announced plans for a Marian Grotto to be built on campus off the southwest corner of the new Lumen Vitae University Center overlooking the Missouri River as part of the record-setting $272 million Vision 2030 Capital Campaign.

Rendering of the new Marian Grotto on the University of Mary campus

University of Mary’s large space would be patterned after the famous grotto at Our Lady of Lourdes in France. That’s where, in 1858, 14-year old Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have witnessed the Blessed Virgin Mary while gathering firewood. After investigations by the Catholic Church confirmed her visions, Soubirous was later canonized a saint.

The day after Shea’s announcement, McDonald and another student, Kyle Martin, of Aberdeen, SD, were asked by the Vision 2030 campaign leader, Jerome Richter, vice president for the Office of Public Affairs at Mary, to spearhead the grotto’s massive fundraising efforts on behalf of the students, while mission advancement raised money from external people and groups beyond the major gift of the Warfords. Suddenly, McDonald found himself going from learning a trade in the classroom to one of sudden need and hands-on experience that would inspire people of his age to give money to a greater cause.  Dean Warford and his wife Jennifer had done what all great professors do, they had inspired the students to a greater cause than themselves.

“We knew the success or failure of the student effort would likely determine whether or not the University of Mary could go forward with the building of the Marian Grotto with the Lumen Vitae University Center, or if they would have to wait for some time in the distant future—no pressure at all,” said McDonald, who is a native of Eden Praire, MN.

After McDonald and Martin rallied the student base, 50 showed up at their first meeting with Richter. It was determined then that $100,000 dollars would need to be raised by McDonald and the students for the project to proceed.

McDonald and Martin began appearing and speaking at as many public events as possible. And, through constant prayer it wasn’t long and their student fundraisers or “promoters,” as they called themselves, grew to 70, then well over 100.

With help from the Knights of Columbus they set up a daily rosary campaign at the potential grotto site as the second phase of the student campaign.

“We call it the Mailman’s Rosary amongst ourselves because just like the mailman delivers in rain, sleet, snow, and wind, so too does Mary deliver our prayers to Christ while we stand outside in any weather that is not legitimately life threatening,” said McDonald. “It started at the launch of the campaign, it has continued every day since and will continue hopefully forever after the grotto is finished.”

McDonald, Martin and the dozens of student volunteers pounded the pavement to the very last day. McDonald believes it was divine intervention, and the generosity of many, that got them over the top of their goal of raising more than $100,000.

“I remember the last meeting that we had where we were basically a week or two away from our deadline and we were sitting at about $13,000 raised. After 7 months of hard work and dedication it felt like we had raised pennies. We were really not fundraisers. Mary, did all of the fundraising, we were just her messengers. Praise God for that, because we would have been lost without her.”

Rendering of the new Marian Grotto on the University of Mary campus

University of Mary’s Warford Grotto is a caved structure made of the areas iconic fieldstone and brick. The student campaign also raised money by allowing people to purchase bricks inscribed with names and a short inscription—those are forever placed along the tunnel walls of the grotto, that McDonald believes “served to deepen the connection between the grotto and the people. When my grandparents come to visit campus for my graduation this spring, even though they will have never seen the grotto before, they will, I am sure, feel a spiritual ownership from having literally helped build it.”

Reflecting on the grand opening of the Warford Grotto, President, Monsignor Shea said, “The University of Mary will never be able to thank the Warford Family enough for their faithful and generous support, but I do know one thing for sure, John and Jennifer, and their family, will always have prayers going their way from this beautiful space along the bluffs of the Missouri.  The prayers of the students who rallied to this cause, and the prayers of generations of students to come, will unite in thankful praise for a long time!”

The public is encouraged to attend an open house tomorrow, Saturday, September 9, 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. to see and tour the new Lumen Vitae University Center, the Marian Grotto and the Gift Hill Memorial. Bring your appetite as free food will be served.