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Holy Grotto

Brother Joseph's Ave Maria Dream

by Jantje Blokhuis-Mulder

Known as "sermons in stone" the Ave Maria Grotto is located on the grounds of the St. Bernard Abbey, one mile east of Cullman on I-65, and 50 miles north of Birmingham. Founded in 1891, the St. Bernard is the only Benedictine Monastery in the state of Alabama.

In 1892, a young Monk left his home in Bavaria. His name was Joseph Zoettel and he was just 14 when he crossed the ocean to move into the St. Bernard Abbey.

Brother Joseph's duties were clear. Every day consisted of prayers and shoveling coal into the mouth of the massive furnace at the Abbey. He had a fascination for history and architecture and as he worked, he dreamed of creating a miniature city of holy and well known sites and shrines - places he would never visit in his lifetime.

The Abbey had post cards and pictures and it was these pictures which became the blueprints for Joseph's miniature city. And so, to feed his interest, he collected pieces of glass, chards of tiles, stones and baubles, and proceeded to build tiny buildings. This hobby grew and by the time Joseph was in his early twenties he was well on his way to constructing his version of a miniature Holy Land with ancient Roman and Palestinian sites.

For nearly fifty years, Joseph created miniature replicas made from shells, empty jars, tiles and stones. Replicas of what he saw on postcards. He placed his creations in the monastery's gardens and as this tiny holy city grew, people started coming... to see. It became clear to the Monks that more space was needed for the growing collection and they knew of just the right spot - an old stone quarry. Partially excavated, the site was located beyond a winding path cut out of the side of a mountain, behind the St. Bernard Abbey.

A large cave - about 27 foot square - became the home of Joseph's version of the Virgin Mary and the infant Christ with the founders of the Benedictine order (St. Benedictus and St. Scolastica) on either side. It was this cave which gave birth to the name Grotto.

Exiting from the back of the visitor's shop, you will see the first shrine - Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Next you will find the Tower of Thanks, a special project which Brother Joseph built to show his gratefulness to all the friends world-wide who sent him bits of glass, prisms from chandeliers, sea shells and glass balls from Ireland (the kind used by fishermen as floats for their fishing nets).

As you continue on your walk, you see the side of the hill covered with remarkable buildings and statues of all kinds, like the Leaning tower of Pisa, Hansel and Grethel’s temple of the Fairies, the statue of Liberty and the Abbeys' power station, where Brother Joseph once shoveled coal.

Through the years the Grotto has grown to a four-acre park with more than 125 biblical structures including reproductions of Catholic churches, Holy Shrines, famous building like the St. Peter’s Basilica, as well as Noah’s Ark, and the Tower of Babel.

Brother Joseph died in 1961. He is buried in the Abbey cemetery, just a short distance from the Grotto gift shop.

Even today, the number of visitors to the Ave Maria Grotto continues to grow. So the next time you are in the area of Cullman Alabama, a visit to this magnificent site, is a definite must.

Text © Jantje Blokhuis-Mulder; Photos Reprinted with Permission

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