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.
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.
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 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.
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.