The Ave Maria Grotto is a 4-acre park, home to 125 miniature replicas of the world’s most well known Catholic shrines and historic buildings. Each handcrafted piece was made by Brother Joseph Zoettl, a Benedictine monk of the St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama. The pieces were made over a period of more than 40 years, starting in the year 1932. The small buildings are a combination of cement, stone, marble and other donated materials. In 1933, a railroad derailment nearby in Vinemont, Alabama sent a freight car of Alabama marble tumbling, crushing much of the contents. No longer usable by the owner, the marble was donated to St. Bernard’s and carted in wheelbarrows by the monks to the Abbey. Much of the later material such as colored beads and glass, broken tile, pieces of marble and costume jewelry, was donated from all over the world by people who had seen the earliest construction and were inspired to assist in the later creations. Each piece is a replica of a historically famous building, church or shrine. The pieces are laid out on “hillsides” which follow a path through the woods. The grotto proper is a small artificial cave containing a statue of the Virgin Mary surrounded by monks, nuns and hanging stalactites made from marble fragments.
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History: Brother Zoettl (1878-1961) was born in Landshut, Bavaria. In January of 1892 when Father Gamelbert Brunner traveled to Europe in search of candidates for the St. Bernard Abbey, the young Zoettl was eager to sign up. Brother Zoettl spent years as a monk and housekeeper in Benedictine missions throughout Virginia, Tennessee and Alabama. Throughout this time he endured abuses and became homesick. A hunchback from a childhood accident, Brother Zoettl could never become a priest due to rules that prevented those with disabilities from being ordained. By 1911, he was working 17-hour days at the powerhouse in the St. Bernard Abbey of Alabama. He would continue this daily routine for 30 years. By 1918, to pass the time during the monotonous, isolated work, he had begun making small creations using cement. His creations soon became a small attraction, and were popular with visitors. By the mid-1920’s, he was making small grottoes the Abbey would sell to support the missions. By 1932, the Abbey had sold over 5,000 of Zoettl’s grottoes. The Ave Maria project began that year. Soon, the vast number of visitors required the site to be moved from the monastery’s recreational grounds, and a new site was dedicated in 1934. Zoettl continued to work on it for the rest of his life. In 1958, he built his final model, the Bascilica in Lourdes. Brother Zoettl passed 3 years later in 1961 at the age of 83 and was honored by the monks with a burial in a special bronze coffin, a rarity for the day. Today, visitors come from all over the world to witness the miniature land, which covers over 3-acres at Alabama’s first and only Benedictine Abbey. The Grotto has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1984.
Ongoing Programs and Education: Group tours of the Ave Maria Grotto may be arranged by scheduling in advance.
The Bloomin’ Festival is a weekend event which takes place each April on the grounds of Ave Maria and the adjoining school. Over 140 exhibitors attend each year to showcase their art, crafts, baked goods and more. The festival includes family friendly activities and performances. All proceeds fund the St. Bernard prep school.
The book “Miniature Miracle” by John Morris is a thoroughly researched biography of Zoettl. “Brother Joseph the Movie” is a full-length documentary that frames Zoettl’s life as a classic fairy tale, told through reenactments, interviews and archival illustrations and footage. Both the book and the movie can be purchased at the Grotto bookstore.
What’s Nearby: Ave Maria Grotto is on the grounds of the St. Bernard Abbey, a Benedictine Monastery established in the 1840’s by monks from the Metten Abbey in Germany, to serve an ever-growing German speaking population in Alabama. The Grotto’s website includes a number of suggested 2-day itineraries which combine a visit to the Ave Maria Grotto with a tour of the Monastery’s church and grounds, as well as the nearby Cullman County Museum. Guests may stay at the Abbey’s retreat center, which offers 46 rooms as well as dining services.
1600 St. Bernard Drive, SE, Cullman, AL 35055, Phone: 256-734-4110