Ave Maria Grotto

Another beautiful day, another incredible grotto.  This weekend’s tour has become a study in organized cacophony.  It seems that the sites that I have seen in the last few days are so densely packed that at first glance the sheer volume seems to overwhelm.  But just as your eye adjusts to the light, you begin to see all of the wonder of the details.  Photos are nice and all, but these places are meant to be seen and experienced in person.
The Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman (about an hour or so north of Birmingham) was created over the course of 30 years by Brother Joseph Zoetl.  It is another of those must-see environments, because photos and words can’t do it justice.  The size of the environment and the scale buildings are lost in translation.  You really need to see this for yourself. 

Joseph Zoetl (1878-1961)

1600 St Bernard Dr SE

Cullman, AL (just east of Cullman of US 278)


Grotto, open to the public

Built: 1932 – 1958

At the age of 13, Joseph Zoetl, almost died of the flu that swept Europe.  A year later, when candidates for the newly created St. Bernard Abbey were sought, he signed up and left his home in Landshut, Bavaria. He served as a housekeeper in the Abbey’s new mission in Cullman, AL. After 20 years, he was put in charge of the Abbey’s powerhouse, where he toiled for the next 30 years. Afflicted with scoliosis and a back injury left his 4′ 10″ frame twisted, causing the brother to experience a life of pain.

In 1918, he began working in cement, creating a church.  His handiwork caught the eye of Father Dominic and he was asked to create a couple of small grottos to raise money for the Abbey.  They sold immediately.  He also amassed his own collection of miniature holy buildings which took up increasing amounts of space. People started to visit his miniature village, “and it became a real nuisance which could not be stopped anymore.”  “One day Father Dominic (Downs) came to me with some little statues and to see if I could make small grottoes.  He had a store in front of the college and sold religious articles to help missions.  When I had made two grottoes I thought that would be all but as Father Dominic sold them right away, he always brought more statues and it became a regular business.” (Brother Joseph, from the Grotto website.)

After making over 5,000 small grottos for sale, eventually the abbot agreed to let him in 1932 to build a grotto on the site of a quarry near the monastery, where his models could be displayed away from the monks.  Little Jerusalem was dismantled and moved to the quarry site.  Two years later, on May 17, 1934, the main grotto was dedicated.  Today the name “Ave Maria Grotto” refers to the entire environment, not just the large grotto itself.

Brother Joseph began the work of a lifetime at the age of 54, and worked on it for the next 30 years, creating the 125 replica miniature buildings that cover the hillside. Although he had help with some of the basic “hardscaping”, it was Brother Joseph that created all of the buildings and determined their placement in the quarry side.  The hillside conveniently “hid” the backs of the buildings, since Brother Joseph only had old photographs or postcards as reference, which featured the highlights of each structure. The distorted scale of the buildings only add to the charm.

With the help of others to create the structure’s base, “the [main] grotto was completed in two years and contains commissioned marble statues of the Virgin and two saints amid a rich decor of marble, glass shells and concrete stalactites. It is surrounded by hundreds of miniature buildings: replicas of churches, cathedrals and shrines. On the right lie Little Jerusalem and other Holy Land shrines, to the left shrines of Europe and America, while nearby stand models of the Tower of Babel and Noah’s Ark.”  (Excerpted text from “Fantasy Worlds” by Deidi Von Schaewen and John Maizel)

Brother Joseph continued to work until 1958, where at the age of 80 he built his last model, the Basilica in Lourdes (above). He died 3 years later, and is buried in a special bronze coffin on the grounds. Today, much of the buildings’ upkeep is maintained by Leo Schwaiger, a hired handyman that worked beside Brother Joseph before his death.  Leo has also created some of the newer buildings, using the workshop in the power station, just as Bro. Joe did.



Vintage photos from the website of the Ave Maria Grotto

To learn more about the Grotto, please visit Detour Art or just go there and see it for yourself.

For more photos, please visit my flickr set