Treasure in the Grotto

Alabama Living Magazine

By Marilyn Jones

Like many travel destinations, we hear about them from friends and family. Such was the case for me when I heard about Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman. A friend suggested I visit the site. He described miniature buildings created by a monk in the earlier half of the 20th century.

Located about an hour north of Birmingham, the attraction is in a former quarry at St. Bernard Abbey, the only Benedictine monastery of men in the state. 

After paying a nominal admission fee, I start my tour by walking along a wide sidewalk down into the grotto. 

It was Brother Joseph Zoettl, a Benedictine monk, who created each building. From Landschutt, Bavaria-Germany, Brother Joseph headed to America to pursue monastic life in 1892. Little did anyone know that he would leave the abbey such an incredible legacy.

Brother Joseph was maimed in an accident that left him slightly hunched due to cervical kyphosis. He was not allowed to be ordained as a priest due to the rule that stated any man with a distracting disability could not be ordained a priest. He was considered a withdrawn, quiet man. After he arrived at the newly founded abbey, he spent his days praying and laboring in the powerhouse. When not busy shoveling coal into the furnaces, he constructed the miniatures.  

Buildings hug the grotto walls allowing guests to easily view the tiny buildings and villages.
Grotto photos by Marilyn Jones

He began making the first replicas in about 1912 and his last, the miniature of the beautiful Lourdes Basilica Church, in 1958 when he was 80 years old. He used rock and concrete to construct each building and marbles, glassware, seashells, tiny ceramic tiles and other objects to decorate the facades.

The tiny buildings were initially in the abbey gardens, but when so many visitors wanted to see them, they were eventually moved to their present home in 1934. 

Visitors from around the world have journeyed here to see the tiny treasures.

The four-acre park is filled with lovely flowers, English ivy and towering trees. Nature has crept in on the tiny buildings making them seem like they were always part of the landscape.

As I walk past The Temple of the Fairies, Leaning Tower of Pisa, The Alamo, Montserrat, St. Peter’s Basilica, and 120 other small structures, I am amazed at his artistry detail and the apparent love that went into their creation. 

Half of the hillside features buildings and scenes from the Holy Land. Also displayed are a number of secular buildings including Spanish missions, German castles, South African shrines and the St. Bernard Abbey power station.

In neighboring Hanceville, there is another religious destination open to individuals and families. Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament is a prominent Roman Catholic Latin Rite shrine located in a beautiful rural setting.  

The Shrine is notable for its gilt interior, solemn atmosphere, and 7.5-foot monstrance. The site is quiet and peaceful. Roses frame many of the buildings.

The shrine is located at 3224 County Road 548. For more information: check or call (256) 352-6267.

Photo courtesy the Library of Congress

His creations came from his extensive reading. He rarely left Alabama during his lifetime. Of all the structures, he had only seen four. The others were designed by using photographs and detailed written descriptions. 

Brother Joseph died in 1961 at the age of 83 and is buried in the Abbey Cemetery. He was a monk of the abbey for 70 years. 

It takes me the better part of an hour to walk the two-block distance. There is such detail in each piece and village. Tiny staircases, statues and decorations add to the charm of each work of art. 

About halfway through the tour is a statue of Brother Joseph. On its base is the inscription “Brother Joseph Zoettl, O.S.B., Creator of Ave Maria Grotto, Ora Et Labora,1878 – 1961.”

At the end of the tour are several other structures created after Brother Joseph’s death. Leo Schwaiger cared for the grotto from 1963 until his retirement in 2014 and, most notably, made the four Marian Shrines. 

It was added to the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage in 1976 and the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

Ave Maria Grotto is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 11:30 to 5 p.m. except New Year’s Day, Easter, July 4th, Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is located in Cullman at 1600 St. Bernard Dr. SE. For more information: check or call (256) 734-4110.

Christmas events at the Grotto

For the Christmas season, the Ave Maria Grotto will be decorated with Christmas lights and music will be featured, along with horse carriage rides. On December 17 and 18 there will be live music from the St. Bernard monks singing Gregorian chants, and traditional Christmas tunes will be performed in Appalachian style. Johnny’s BBQ food truck will be on-site both nights, the Grotto’s picnic grounds will be lit up for use and horse-drawn wagon rides around the campus with a storyteller will be featured. 

Open 5-9 p.m. on these dates:
Dec. 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 11, 16, 17, 18, 22, 23, 30, 31 

Christmas Admission 
Adults – $6 
Students – $3 
Children under 3 – free 
Wagon rides on Dec. 17, 18 – $5


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