On the eve of the 52nd feast day of the Lady of Lourdes Grotto Shrine in San Jose del Monte, Bulacan, Marietta Guanzon-Holmgren, president of Grotto Shrine Foundation Inc., was in the thick of preparations for a concelebrated Mass and a lunch buffet.
Guanzon-Holmgren, a petite and plucky 80-year-old, walked tirelessly around the complex, inspecting repairs, and engaging laborers and her staff in motherly banter.
While the weekend home of her late parents required some fixing up after a typhoon and termite infestation, the statue of the Lady of Lourdes appeared to be in mint condition. This, despite being exposed to the elements as well as the hands of countless devotees who have taken to touching this faithful replica of the Lourdes statue of France.
Credit its hardiness to quality marble from Carrara, Italy (where the statue was made), as well as the tender loving care of its custodian.
Once a week, Guanzon-Holmgren herself shampoos the six-foot-tall statue, cleanses it with water from a spring that flows beneath the grotto, then finishes with a spritz of tea rose perfume that she makes.
The devotion was begun by her mother, Anita Guidote-Guanzon, who had the statue built in 1961 after she was pronounced cured from cancer of the uterus, after being given just six months to live. The miracle occurred during her pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, where the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared 18 times before a then young St. Bernadette in 1858, and where millions of Catholics from all over the world flock to see the statue, as well as drink or bathe in the purported healing waters of its natural spring.
Guidote-Guanzon, who bathed in the Lourdes waters, went on to live for 30 more years, devoting her life to the Blessed Mother. Together with her husband Horatio, she converted the family’s 20-hectare farm in San Jose del Monte, Bulacan, into a public shrine. There, they placed the solid marble Lourdes statue on a niche in a craggy mountainside when it arrived, coincidentally, on the day before the feast of the Lady of Lourdes, February 10, 1963.
Since its inauguration, it’s been a go-to place for millions of Filipino Catholics every Holy Week. And like its namesake in France, the grotto in Bulacan has received numerous testimonials from visitors, mostly medical miracles like the one Guidote-Guanzon experienced.
Attractions in this sanctuary include the amphitheater facing the grotto, where one can gaze in awe at the sight of crutches and braces hanging to the grotto’s right. They’re proof of paralyzed visitors’ answered prayers, explains Guanzon-Holmgren, who donates many of these crutches and braces to the poor.
To the left of the grotto is a cascade of lush, light pink flowers, which Guanzon-Holmgren swears bloom only during the shrine’s feast day.
The complex also boasts two churches: the one built by her mother, which continues to hold packed Masses; and the Upper Basilica, a reproduction of the one in Lourdes, France. It was built by Guanzon-Holmgren and her four younger sisters in 2004, “as fulfillment to their parents’ wishes,” reads a plaque in the main entrance.
Prayer and contemplation are also possible in Rosary Hill, which features giant concrete Rosary beads and two statues of Jesus; and in Cavalry Hill, with its life-size tableaux of the Stations of the Cross. Make sure to pass by the tomb of Jesus in the 14th station: Inside is a large wooden Crucifix, which Guanzon-Holmgren hand-carried on a plane back to Manila.
She herself is a miracle magnet, having weathered a series of ailments and close calls in her life. Then married to her second husband, businessman Tage Holmgren, she was in his native Sweden when doctors spotted a lump in her breast.
Mysteriously, the lump disappeared as she was being prepped for surgery. “I think you’re strong with the Lord,” said her attending physician. “Please pray for my autistic son.”
Then there was the time in New York when her arm was to be amputated due to bone cancer. On the day of the operation, the procedure was downgraded to a removal of a benign tumor.
The worst was when she contracted a serious case of dengue in 1966. Working then as a model for Hyatt Hotel, she waited two weeks before consulting a doctor about her profuse bleeding. A priest was called in to hear her last confession and, at some point, she believed she actually died.
Next thing she knew she was lying in the hospital, surrounded by candles and children crying by her bedside. “I think I have a purpose,” she says of how she manages to avert death. “It’s to care for the grotto.”
It’s a mission she maintains to this day. After finishing a master’s degree in Cornell University, raising six children from her first marriage single-handedly, and enjoying successful careers with top US hotels, the United Nations and the modeling industry, Guanzon-Holmgren now divides her time between running her family’s Farmacia Oro pharmacy business and attending to the grotto’s daily upkeep.
Fifty-two years after its inauguration, the grotto is still a work in progress. When Guidote-Guanzon died in March 1990, leaving the shrine in her eldest daughter’s care, Guanzon-Holmgren introduced a school and orphanage, as well as a canteen, souvenir shop, flea market and parking lot, on the grounds.
The shrine foundation president has even found her likely successor in her son, Joris. Last November, Guanzon-Holmgren was abroad when she received every mother’s worst fear: a text message saying her son had flat-lined. His wife, in fact, was looking for a coffin. “Don’t do anything until I get there!” ordered Guanzon-Holmgren, who prayed unceasingly on the first flight home. Inexplicably, Joris’ condition improved; to his mother’s shock and relief, Joris was up and about when she finally arrived 24 hours later.
With too many blessings to enumerate, there is nothing more that a grateful Guanzon-Holmgren could want. Asked what her prayers are like these days, she says: “No novenas, but I’m always saying the Rosary up to three times a day. And I always say thanks for everything that has been given to me.”