Paul Mahoney’s work boots are still lined up where he left them. His six grown sons see no reason to disturb the battered footwear from their post along two shelves in the historic family home. Although his earthly work ended with his death in 2002, his legacy continues, with industrious hospitality at its fore.
Nestled at the base of the Talkeetna Mountains in Wasilla, the hedges along Schrock Road part beneath a hand-painted sign announcing “Grotto Iona: A Place of Prayer.” The Mahoney family retreat is intended for pilgrims as much as it is their own family members.
The descendants of Paul and Iona Mahoney share a devotion to Saint Jude and a paternal tenderness for this land and anyone who finds their way to it. The homestead was staked in 1958 — at that time the family numbered four sons with a fifth on the way. Six girls and another boy would join them through birth over the next 12 years. The young couple (he of Irish and Scottish lineage, she Dutch and Cherokee) traveled from Colorado, through the Yukon Territory and chose land north of Wasilla as proving grounds for a generation. Their strength typifies the perseverance needed to endure a brutal climate and unending physical work.
At first glance, to meet the Mahoney clan today is to encounter a winsome remnant of Mat-Su Valley history, with many still sporting fringed leather, western boots and quiet swagger. However, upon lingering in their company, it’s clear that the grit of this family’s bond is no bucolic theater. They are trappers, miners, steel workers, rodeo queens, storytellers, musicians, loggers, hunters, fishermen, bikers, painters, blacksmiths, woodworkers, builders and farmers. They all know how to cook. The Mahoneys’ Catholic faith is the bedrock which continues to shape their milestones, anchor their tragedies and propel them forward in unity.
Tim Mahoney, the eldest, maintains the homestead with brother Tom and sisters Pauline and Abigail. Tim may appear on bicycle, tractor, or horseback from any end of the 80-acre property. His statuesque presence and crisp ranch gear are trimmed by a white Stetson. Mahoney often works in the distance and notices grotto visitors from afar — maybe offering a friendly wave, but prefers to gauge their fragility before approaching more personally. Mahoney explains that he never asks for visitors’ names, since reasons for seeking a place of prayer are, by nature, private.
His angular features turn to meekness as he describes the spontaneous offerings of gratitude over the years. Most recently poignant was a woman who came to the grotto for extended daily visits over two weeks, finally intimating to Mahoney that she had been quite physically ill, but reported profound healing during time spent in the grotto.
As for the grotto itself, the style is patterned after the so-called ‘beehive’ grottos popular in Northern Ireland which Paul Mahoney admired. The stonework was laid as a dry set, with no moisture used to fuse the stones until completion — instinctively designed by Paul Mahoney, with his sons and grandsons at his heel. It would take six years. He worked through crippling pain, to exhaustion and into his ailing days, which were crowned with the realization of the grotto in honor of his late wife. Iona preceded him in death in 1997 while in Montana, prompting his return to the Alaskan homestead and inspiring the homage.
Gideon Mahoney, son of Dennis Mahoney and firstborn grandson of Paul and Iona, recalled the process of laying the foundation for the stone grotto.
“For two solid years, we had standing orders from Grandpa: gather rocks,” he recalled. “If any of us were traveling the state for work or otherwise, we were to gather rocks.”
The initial deposit of stones were sought by the elder Mahoney from Iona’s favorite spots in Alaska and Canada, such as Soldotna, Eureka, the western side of Hatcher Pass, the Knik riverbed in Butte, and Dawson City. Patrick Mahoney recalls gathering the grotto’s four hulking granite corner stones from the shores of Turnagain Arm. Back at the ranch, work hummed along according to health and the help on hand. Although the project was never formally publicized, travelers from all over the world would appear with contributions of rocks. Paul Mahoney would inspect the offerings and follow his preferences. He rejected at least twice the amount he finally used — the castoff pile growing as the painstaking building process continued. The only stone native to their acreage is the grotto’s roof, which was rolled down the mountainside by a Canadian hermit (squatting on Mahoney land) who rarely emerged from the wilderness. It was cut lengthwise and mounted, giving shelter to the intentions cradled inside.
Gideon’s mother, Marie, is buried here, as is patriarch Paul Mahoney. An alabaster bench is engraved with an original poem titled “Blest by the Grace of A Saint” which Patrick Mahoney, 57, recites with ease. There are six graves, including a memorial for Tim’s daughter Rebekah and a nephew’s baby lost to miscarriage. Extended family members make up the others.
Landscaping is roughly agreed upon by the siblings, always keeping in mind the public element of their property. Gates swing open, helping to imply invitation, as well as the unspoken collaboration with passersby donating statues and mementos to be placed inside the grotto. Tim once even opened his long-defunct newspaper delivery receptacle to find a tribal style statue of mother and child entwined together.
“It could’ve been there for months before I knew. But now, she’s right where she belongs,” he mused while arranging her among the grotto’s kitsch and sacramentals.
For the past 10 years, the clan has gathered annually on Father’s Day weekend to tackle repairs and landscaping — a reunion of relations strewn from Washington, along the Kenai Peninsula and throughout Southcentral Alaska. By midday, they’re ready to party. Tables, benches and coffee pots are set up under a massive pod of birch trees, complete with a camper for the comfort of ladies and babies. A bounty of Alaskan fare is served; horses and four-wheelers roll past topped with happy children. Favorite rhymes and stories are perfected by the kids, fish tales and recipes exchanged among adults, and the grounds are spruced up by all.
Three generations play football, never derailed by a tumble of kids with a Frisbee streaking in and out of their formations. Barney Mahoney grills steaks and burgers in what seems like hour-long shifts to ensure the crowd is well fed. Tom receives a continuous stream of daughters and grandchildren.
When asked why their family memorial park is open to the public, Virginia Mahoney emphasized the grotto grounds as an extension of her parents’ temperaments.
“Dad was very open about his religion. He also felt it was important to have a place for people to bring their kids and get away from it all — tough to find in this world,” she said. “And Mom, well — Mom just helped everyone. She was an excellent cook, the consummate host — always adding another plate at the table, she nurtured anyone and everyone. “
Their 12 children wouldn’t have it any other way, during their own remaining years on Earth, but to do their best to fill those boots.