Grotto of the Redemption

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Grotto of the Redemption

Father Paul Dobberstein 1872-1954
Built: 1912-1959

300 N Broadway
West Bend, IA
515-887-2371
http://www.westbendgrotto.com
Religious/spiritual

Talk about the power of crystals! The eighth wonder of the world is in Iowa. At least, that’s what the advertisements say, and who am I to argue with them? Rising out of the small town of West Bend (pop. 862), a part of Iowa where the landscape is seldom disturbed by anything larger than a grain silo, lies the Grotto of the Redemption. Grottos are a phenomenon we’ve seen a lot of over the years, but this one is King of the Hill.

Father Paul Dobberstein, creator of the grotto, was born in Germany in 1872 and immigrated to America in 1893. As the story goes, while a student at St. Francis Seminary he became seriously ill with pneumonia at a time when penicillin had yet to be invented and promised to honor the Blessed Virgin should he recover his health. And apparently, when Dobberstein made a promise, he kept it, in a big way!

Assigned to the West Bend parish in 1898, he was digging the footings for his grotto by 1901. For over a decade he was stockpiling rocks and precious stones, and secured the parcel of land. He worked with rock, minerals, crystals, and concrete, hauling materials by the railcar-load. Apparently, Father Paul had studied geology during his student years and prized working with the finest minerals.

The actual work of began to take shape in 1912, without the aid of any blueprints. He had an assistant named Matt Szerensce. Graduating from high school in 1912, Szerensce signed on as full-time grotto collaborator, a career move ultimately resulting in fifty-two years of intense labor. The two gathered materials relentlessly, sometimes hitching rides with their railroad handcar from passing trains, traveling to far-off places to bring home another load of interesting stone or minerals.

There are almost a hundred carloads of rocks and stones, the vast bulk of which had to be processed, stored, classified and handled many times before it found it’s final and proper place in the harmonious structure. Winters were often spent making the rosettes of crystals that would be added to the grotto in the warmer months. The entire panoramic beauty is made of 9 grottos or scenes from the life of Christ, creating the story of redemption.

And they built, and built, and built. Pathways wind in and around the grounds, leading one through a maze of religious riches. The grotto, the story of the Redemption, the caves honoring the Blessed Mother, the 12 Stations of the Cross, and on and on, are all woven together in a tapestry of gilded stone. All of the work was done by hand until 1947, when they finally got an electric hoist to lift the rock, cement, steel and stones.

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(Photos & text © copyright 2006-2014 Kelly Ludwig, all rights reserved)

Bibliography

“Detour Art—Outsider, Folk Art, and Visionary Folk Art Environments Coast to Coast, Art and Photographs from the Collection of Kelly Ludwig” by Kelly Ludwig, Kansas City Star Books, 2007.

“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.

On DVD – Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations, “Neighborly Northerners”, KCPT, Kansas City Public Television, 1996-2001.

“Sacred Spaces & Other Places: A Guide to Grottos & Sculptural Environments in the Upper Midwest” by Lisa Stone and Jim Zanzi, Chicago, IL: The School of the Art Institute of Chicago Press, 1993.

“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.

“20th Century American Folk, Self Taught, and Outsider Art” by Betty-Carol Sellen, Cynthia J. Johnson, Neal-Schuman Publishers, New York, 1993.

“American Folk Art, A Regional Reference” by Kristin G. Congdon and Kara Kelley Hallmark, ABC-CLIO Publishers, California, 2012.