Ave Maria Grotto – Small buildings make a big impact

Ave Maria Grotto – Joseph Zoetl

1878 — 1961
Cullman, AL
Religious/spiritual environment
Built: 1932 – 1958

At the age of 13, Joseph Zoettl, almost died of the flu that swept Europe.  A year later, when candidates for the St. Bernard Abbey were sought, he signed up and served as a housekeeper in many of the Abbey’s missions. After 20 years of housekeeping, he was put in charge of the Abbey’s powerhouse, where he toiled 17 hour days for the next 30 years.

In 1918, he began working in cement, creating a church, followed by more buildings that were later called “Little Jersualem”.  He also amassed his own collection of miniature holy buildings which took up increasing amounts of space. People started to visit his miniature village, “and it became a real nuisance which could not be stopped anymore.”  “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.” (Brother Joseph’s words, from the Grotto website.)

After making over 5,000 small grottos for sale, eventually the abbot commissioned him in 1932 to build a grotto on the site of a quarry near the monastery, where his models could be displayed.  Two years later, on May 17, 1934, the Ave Maria Grotto was dedicated.

“The grotto was completed in two years and contains commissioned marble statues of the Virgin and two saints amid a rich decor of marble, glass shells and concrete stalactites. It is surrounded by hundreds of miniature buildings: replicas of churches, cathedrals and shrines. On the left lie Little Jerusalem and other Holy Land shrines, to the right shrines of Europe and America, while nearby stand models of the Tower of Babel and Noah’s Ark.”  (Excerpted text from “Fantasy Worlds” by Deidi Von Schaewen and John Maizel)

Brother Joseph continued to work until 1958, where at the age of 80 he built his last model, the Basilica in Lourdes. He died 3 years later, and is buried in a special bronze coffin on the grounds.

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(Photos © copyright 2006-2013 Kelly Ludwig, all rights reserved)

Bibliography & Links:

“Rare Visions & Roadside Revelations” (the book), by Randy Mason, Michael Murphy and Don Mayberger, Kansas City Star Publishing, 2002.

“Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations Coast to Coast Travel-o-Pedia” by Randy Mason, et. al., Kansas City Star Books, 2009.

“American Self-Taught Art: An Illustrated Analysis of 20th Century Artists and Trends with 1,319 Capsule Biographies” by Florence Laffal and Julius Laffal, 2003.

“Fantasy Worlds” by Deidi Von Schaewen and John Maizels, Taschen, New York, 1999.

“Self-Made Worlds: Visionary Environments” by Roger Manley and Mark Sloan, Aperture, New York, 1997.

“Self Taught, Outsider, and Folk Art—A guide to American Artists, Locations and Resources” by Betty-Carol Sellen with Cynthia J. Johnson, McFarland & Company, 2000.

On DVD – Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations, “Southern Flavor”, KCPT, Kansas City Public Television, 1999-2001.

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