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What Is the Ave Maria Grotto?

By Maggie J. Hall
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, Alabama features the artistic works of Brother Joseph Zoettl, a Benedictine monk who resided at the St. Bernard Abbey. What began as a hobby turned into a type of outdoor American museum, as Brother Zoettl created over 125 miniature buildings that line a meandering pathway through a scenic hilly-forested location. Brother Joseph continued his passionate artwork for over 50 years until his death in 1961. Using nothing more than photographs and postcards as guides, Brother Zoettl recreated some of the world's most recognizable architectural structures, commemorating historical and religious locations.

Brother Joseph was born in Bavaria in 1878, migrated to America, and made vows at St. Bernard Abbey in 1897. As he worked in the facility's power plant, he began to collect construction material refuse and scraps, which he converted into diminutive replicas of world-renowned structures. There were enough structures created by 1934 that the Ave Maria Grotto opened its gates to visitors. Over the years, the site has expanded to cover approximately 4 acres.

The exhibit is named for the focal point of the park, a shrine to the Virgin Mary. The actual Ave Maria Grotto features a miniature cave like environment, complete with stalactite ceiling. Monks and nuns surround the mother of Jesus. Materials for this creation, in part, came from the nearby wreck of a train that had been transporting marble. As the marble was no longer useful for conventional construction, the company donated the marble to Brother Joseph.

Upon hearing about or seeing the unusual site, people from around the world donated all types of baubles, trinkets, and unusable construction material to Brother Zoettl. Comprised of stone and concrete, the small structures of the Ave Maria Grotto are composed of a myriad of materials, including bathroom tiles, colored glass, and jewelry. Though not always architecturally accurate, the amount of detail in each structure captivates thousands annually. Strategically placed on a hillside, the buildings naturally blend in with the surrounding greenery.

The majority of the exhibits in the Ave Maria Grotto collection represent the cathedrals, churches, and shrines found in various countries on the planet. Visitors see everything from St. Peter's Basilica and Vatican Square, to the shrine at Lourdes. One area showcases the Spanish missions. An exhibit replicating ancient houses of Jerusalem, the Gardens of Babylon, and Herod's Castle. The ancient Rome exhibit depicts the Coliseum and the Parthenon.

Other historic structures in the Ave Maria Grotto museum include the Great Wall of China and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Childhood memories inspired Brother Zoettl to construct Noah's Ark and the Fairy Cottage of Hansel and Gretel. Upon Brother Joseph's death, caretakers assumed the role of maintaining the Ave Maria Grotto exhibit. One caretaker, in keeping with some of the museum's whimsical collections, created a chipmunk crossing.

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