This stop on the Alabama Tour is a must for anyone coming through the area. It was also the place that inspired my Alabama tour. The miniatures are well done and the path is an easy, handicapped accessible one. It was pouring rain when I arrived, but the lovely ladies at the desk lent me a colorful umbrella for the walk. (I also received my first senior citizen discount to get in! Hey, a dollar is a dollar!)Saint Bernard Abbey, located near Cullman, Alabama, houses the Ave Maria Grotto.
There are also many other buildings at the complex, including a church and private school. According to Roadside Attractions:
Brother Joseph (formerly Michael Zoettl) was a Benedictine monk born in Bavaria, who spent decades turning cement and junk into a miniature city in Alabama. He was a little guy, less than five feet tall and under 100 pounds. At an early age he was injured in an accident that left him slightly hunchbacked, but luckily didn’t hurt his ability to bend over and build tiny things.
In 1911 he was put in charge of the powerhouse at Alabama’s Saint Bernard Abbey. He spent 17 hours a day, 7 days a week, pumping oil and watching gauges. It was lonely, mind-numbing work, even for a monk. So to pass the time, Brother Joseph built little rock grottoes around tiny religious statues. His superiors at the Abbey noticed, and began selling the grottos in the gift shop. Brother Joseph later said that he made over 5,000 of them before he quit counting.
He also made miniature replicas of simple Holy Land structures, and soon had enough for an outdoor village he called “Little Jerusalem.” Again his superiors noticed, and again they had bigger ideas. “I told Abbot Bernard I was getting old and could hardly do much any more,” Brother Joseph recalled in the official Ave Maria Grotto guidebook. “But he would not listen. So I started work and had plenty to do.”
The project this time was the Ave Maria Grotto, begun in 1932 in a four-acre abandoned quarry on the Abbey grounds. Brother Joseph, despite his acknowledged age and fatigue, would eventually fill it with tons of decorative rock and around 150 elaborate structures. The Grotto is not some holy shrine that got out of control. From the start, it was conceived as an over-the-top public attraction.
Brother Joseph was shy and could not travel, so he designed his buildings mostly from pictures on tourist post cards (We were once given a rare glimpse of his well-worn post card scrapbooks). Sometimes all he had was a front view, so those buildings resemble false-front saloons in a Wild West town. He worked on his little buildings in the powerhouse during the day, then set them in the Grotto in the evening or early morning, so he wouldn’t have to interact with people.
Using only basic hand tools, Brother Joseph would shape cement into a replica building, then give it some zing with marbles, seashells, cracked dinner plates, or bicycle reflectors. Tiny-but-majestic domes were fashioned from old birdcages and toilet tank floats. Biblical sights and Roman Catholic buildings came first — the Tower of Babel, St. Peter’s in Rome — but Brother Joseph later added secular curiosities such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa and even the Mysterious Viking Tower of Rhode Island, which, according to an accompanying sign in the Grotto, was built by wayward 14th century Irish missionaries.
The little monk’s busy hands eventually turned the quarry walls into a solid architectural mass, as if a miniature biblical flood had picked up most of the world’s recognizable itty-bitty buildings and dumped them in the same hillside subdivision.
Ave Maria Grotto is one of those attractions where it’s difficult to take a bad picture. Visitors follow a winding trail down to the quarry floor and then a less forgiving path up and out to the gift shop. The elderly and the overweight don’t realize that they’re in for a real workout on a hot Alabama afternoon. Strung along the trail are some of Brother Joseph’s less-religious creations, such as a “Castle of the Fairies” with a subterranean dragon, a memorial to Abbey school graduates killed in World War II, and even a miniature reproduction of the infamous Saint Bernard powerhouse. On the way out, Brother Joseph’s work is augmented by additions from long-serving (1963-2014) Grotto handyman Leo Schwaiger, whose creations include a miniature Great Wall of China and a crosswalk for chipmunks.
Brother Joseph died in 1961, although he remains in the Grotto as a life-size bronze statue dedicated in 2009 (He stands next to one of his miniature buildings to show how tiny he was). Despite a lifetime of labor and frail health, Brother Joseph worked on Ave Maria Grotto until he was 80. As he says in the official guidebook, in what sounds like weary amazement, “I never dreamed I would get so old.”