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The Ave Maria Grotto: A monk from Alabama spent 50 years recreating some of the most famous religious structures of the world

David Goran

The Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, Alabama, is home to a unique collection of some of the most famous religious structures of the world. Located at 1600 St. Bernard Avenue Southeast on the grounds of the Saint Bernard Abbey, the collection was created by Brother Joseph Zoettel, a Benedictine monk of St. Bernard Abbey, who devoted some 50 years to the project; the last three decades (1932 to 1961) almost without interruption.

A unique collection of miniature replicas of real-world shrines and buildings, as well as fantasy scenes. By joevare Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0 -

A unique collection of miniature replicas of real-world shrines and buildings, as well as fantasy scenes. By joevare Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

 

St. Peters Church in Rome model at the Ave Maria Grotto. By Carol M. Highsmith Public Domain

St. Peters Church in Rome model at the Ave Maria Grotto. Wikipedia/Public Domain

Known as Brother Joe, his real job at the Abbey was to work in the Abbey’s physical plant, but his hobby of grotto building soon became an all-consuming passion. Zoettel enjoyed working with his hands, and around 1918 he began building models from materials left over from the construction of the monastery’s buildings.

Zoettel created his 125 masterpieces incorporating materials sent to him from around the world. By Rob Briscoe Flickr CC BY 2.0

Zoettel created his 125 masterpieces incorporating materials sent to him from around the world. By Rob Briscoe Flickr CC BY 2.0

 

He constructed the edifices from photographs or textual descriptions. By Daniel Thornton Flickr CC BY 2.0

He constructed the edifices from photographs or textual descriptions. By Daniel Thornton Flickr CC BY 2.0

He built the structures from bricks, marbles, tiles, pipes, sea shells, plastic animals, costume jewelry, toilet bowl floats and cold cream jars, much of which had been donated by visitors from around the world.

Brother Joseph Zoettl spent nearly 50 years creating the miniature stone city. By Daniel Thornton Flickr CC BY 2.0

Brother Joseph Zoettl spent nearly 50 years creating the miniature stone city. By Daniel Thornton Flickr CC BY 2.0

 

Visitors to the abbey spread word of Zoettel's creations, and soon more visitors began to come. By Daniel Thornton Flickr CC BY 2.0

Visitors to the abbey spread the word of Zoettel’s creations, and soon more visitors began to come. By Daniel Thornton Flickr CC BY 2.0

Brother Joseph was able to stoop down and faithfully recreate 125 religious and otherwise significant buildings. Half of the hillside features buildings and scenes from the Holy Land. Also displayed are a number of secular buildings and the occasional pagan temple, including the Alamo Mission in San Antonio, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Spanish missions, German castles, South African shrines, Hansel and Gretel’s Temple of the Fairies, and even the St. Bernard Abbey power station, where the monk worked shoveling coal. There are also extensive groupings, the most famous being the City of Jerusalem, often called “Jerusalem in Miniature,” which is sometimes used as an alternate name for the park.

On January 19, 1984, the Ave Maria Grotto is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. By joevare Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

On January 19, 1984, the Ave Maria Grotto is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. By joevare Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

 

The site is now a major tourist attraction. By Daniel Thornton Flickr CC BY 2.0

The site is now a major tourist attraction. By Daniel Thornton Flickr CC BY 2.0

 

Brother Joseph rarely left Alabama, where he died in 1961. By Daniel Thornton Flickr CC BY 2.0

Brother Joseph rarely left Alabama, where he died in 1961. By Daniel Thornton Flickr CC BY 2.0

Some structures, such as Brother Joseph’s Tower of Thanks, are personal tributes created in appreciation for the building materials he received throughout the years building his sculptures. In 1958, at the age of 80, he built his last miniature, the Lourdes Basilica Church, based on the church in Lourdes, France. Brother Joseph died in 1961 and is buried in the Abbey cemetery a short distance from the Grotto gift shop.