Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, Alabama

Ave Maria Grotto, Saint Bernard Drive, Cullman, Alabama, Združene države Amerike

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Ave Maria Grotto – Known throughout the world as “Jerusalem in Miniature,” is a beautifully landscaped, four-acre park designed to provide a natural setting for the 125 miniature reproductions of some of the most famous historic buildings and shrines of the world.

Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, Alabama

Ave Maria Grotto

The masterpieces of stone and concrete are the lifetime work of Brother Joseph Zoettl, a Benedictine monk of St. Bernard Abbey. Begun as a hobby, with various materials he could find, and infinite patience and a remarkable sense of symmetry and proportion.

Brother Joseph re-created some of the greatest edifices of all time.

History of the Ave Maria Grotto

The builder of the miniatures at the Ave Maria Grotto was a Benedictine Monk — Brother Joseph Zoettl, O.S.B. Born in Landshut, Bavaria in 1878, he was maimed in an accident that gave him a hunchback, but luckily it did not hurt his ability to bend over and build the miniatures.

He came to Saint Bernard Abbey in 1892. After becoming a Brother in the Benedictine Order, he was appointed to the power plant for the Abbey, and while there he developed his hobby of building miniature shrines.

In contemplating the Main Grotto, which was to be the centerpiece of the whole park, Br. Joseph had yet to decide on the type of building materials he would employ and where they would come from.

A partial solution was handed to him on April 29, 1933, when there was a derailment of the L&N railroad about twenty miles away near Vinemont, Alabama.

Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, Alabama

One freight car full of marble from the Gantt Quarry, Sylacauga, Alabama overturned and the marble was crushed. It was useless to the owner so he gave it to Saint Bernard. The monks went up and carted it down to Saint Bernard; it was exactly what Brother Joseph needed as the main stalactites to hang in the Great Grotto.

Brother Joseph Zoettl

“To pass the time, I started hobbies again.” Thus the origins of the masterpiece.

Brother Joseph was born on January 24, 1878. In 1891, he almost died of the flu that swept over Europe. In January of 1892, Father Gamelbert Brunner went to Europe looking for candidates for St. Bernard Abbey. Young Michael Zoettl decided to join up, somewhat to the surprise of his parents. In a touching reference, Brother Joseph describes how he and his father, who worked in a brewery, settled for only a glass of cider to mark the occasion. “January 27, 1892 was the date of departure. All night I cried till we entered the railroad car, no homesickness, but what homesickness is I found out many years later in Stonega, Virginia.” The comment is a clue to a side of Brother Joseph’s life of which few people are aware. As a monk he served as housekeeper for priests in many of our missions. Again a note of interest: one of his priest associates, Brother Joseph was later to write: “he called my cooking poison, he would also examine the coal ashes to see how much coal was in there, then he would call me down.” Such menages we can assume took place in Tuscumbia and Decatur, Alabama; Dayton, Tennessee; Pocahontas and Stonega, Virginia.

After his housekeeping career, Br. Joseph was brought to the Abbey and put in charge of the powerhouse built in 1911. Long burdensome workdays of seventeen hours with hardly time to get to Sunday Mass, followed. For thirty years this was his routine. “It became very tedious,” he tells later, “for I had to pump from morning to night every day, Sunday included. “To pass the time, I started hobbies again.” Thus the origins of the masterpiece. Later in 1918, he tells us, “I began working with cement. The first thing I constructed was a church, that is still in existence, then a year later I began with some small oriental buildings which were later called Little Jerusalem.”

Brother Joseph’s own words suggest that some of his monastic brethren saw something of the future in his early work. Father Lawrence O’Leary, the guestmaster, took all visitors out to see “it,” (and then another presage of the future) “but by and by other people came and it became a real nuisance which could not be stopped anymore.” And another early development: “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.”

By 1932, Br. Joseph’s fate was sealed. He was to build a grotto of such size and dimensions as to outdo anything he had ever dreamed of. After making five thousand small grottoes for sale, he commenced work on what is now Ave Maria Grotto. On May 17, 1934 the Ave Maria Grotto was dedicated. Brother Joseph continued his work for over 40 years, using materials sent from all over the world. He built his last model, the Basilica in Lourdes, at the age of 80, in 1958.

Brother Joseph died on October 15, 1961. He was buried in a special bronze coffin. The cost and permanent quality of the coffin had as much to do with the esteem in which his fellow monks held him, as it did with the legacy of fame he had left their home.

History
The builder of the miniatures at the Ave Maria Grotto was a Benedictine Monk — Brother Joseph Zoettl, O.S.B. Born in Landshut, Bavaria in 1878, he was maimed in an accident that gave him a hunchback, but luckily it did not hurt his ability to bend over and build the miniatures. He came to Saint Bernard Abbey in 1892. After becoming a Brother in the Benedictine Order, he was appointed to the power plant for the Abbey, and while there he developed his hobby of building miniature shrines.

In contemplating the Main Grotto, which was to be the centerpiece of the whole park, Br. Joseph had yet to decide on the type of building materials he would employ and where they would come from. A partial solution was handed to him on April 29, 1933, when there was a derailment of the L&N railroad about twenty miles away near Vinemont, Alabama. One freight car full of marble from the Gantt Quarry, Sylacauga, Alabama overturned and the marble was crushed. It was useless to the owner so he gave it to Saint Bernard. The monks went up and carted it down to Saint Bernard; it was exactly what Brother Joseph needed as the main stalactites to hang in the Great Grotto.

The material which adorned the works had been donated by people who admired and had seen the beauty in his previous works: the small grottoes enclosing Father Lawrence O’Leary’s bargain statues, crucifixes, ash trays, etc. People sent colored glass, marbles, cold cream jars, punctured commode floats, wrecked marble, broken bathroom tile, costume jewelry, gifts from every state in the union and from many foreign countries.

The first replicas were erected on the monastery recreation grounds, but because of the large number of visitors, a new site was selected and on May 17, 1934 the Ave Maria Grotto was dedicated. Brother Joseph continued his work for over 40 years, using materials sent from all over the world. He built his last model, the Basilica in Lourdes, at the age of 80, in 1958.

The Ave Maria Grotto, located on the grounds of Alabama’s first and only Benedictine Abbey, consists of over 125 miniatures, reproductions of famous churches, shrines and buildings. Encompassing an area of over three acres, this miniature fairyland sees visitors from all over the world.

More detailed information can be found in the book titled Miniature Miracle by John Morris sold in the Grotto gift shop.

Posted in North America and United States