A Miracle in Miniature: The Ave Maria Grotto

St. Peter's Basilica at Ave Maria Grotto

Imagine a single location where you can see the world’s most revered religious and cultural structures: St. Peter’s Basilica complete with colonnades and obelisk, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, the Roman Colosseum, even San Antonio’s famous Alamo. Miraculously, this is possible at Ave Maria Grotto in the South, an extraordinary exhibit of these and many other famous structures replicated by hand in more modest dimensions.

The Grotto, dubbed “Jerusalem in Miniature,” is located in the quarry grounds of St. Bernard’s Abbey in Cullman, Alabama. For nearly 50 years, a quiet but industrious Benedictine monk has whiled away his days rendering over 100 mini masterworks. They reside adjacent to one another, lodged in a rocky hillside, along a quarry path.

The path at Ave Maria Grotto.
The path at Ave Maria Grotto (Shutterstock/Larry Porges).

The master sculptor, Brother Joseph Zoettl

In some ways, the story of the man behind the Grotto is as fanciful as the works themselves. Joseph Zottl was born in Bavaria in 1878 and suffered a significant accident that left him partially hunched. He immigrated to America as a teenager to escape the verbal lashings of a cruel stepmother and settled in Alabama, where he studied at St. Bernard’s Benedictine monastery. Joseph took his vows in 1897 but was prevented from full ordination as a priest due to his “distracting injury,” a limitation observed by various religious orders at the time.

Instead of saying mass, then, he spent his days in the abbey power plant shoveling coal — with occasional breaks for reading. He was especially inspired by St. Therese’s book of devotions, “The Little Way,” perhaps literally, as his mini- model building started from there. Using bits of stone and debris, Joseph went to work building small church models and grottos for the 500 or so Virgin Mary figurines that were sold in the abbey shop. From that point on, it was clear that Brother Joseph had found his calling.

The models

From 1912 through 1958, Joseph constructed over 125 models, each no more than a few feet tall. His works covered an array of themes: Roman Catholic cathedrals and monasteries, biblical scenes and buildings (the Tower of Babel, for example), secular buildings (the Leaning Tower of Pisa and German castles among them), and moving tributes to both Alabama soldiers killed in WWII and atomic bomb victims in Japan.

The Colosseum at Ave Maria Grotto.
The Colosseum (Source: iStock/KatieDobies).

Using basic hand tools, discarded building materials, sea shells, plastic animals, broken china, and other scraps, Joseph brought his visions to life. Though the models boasted considerable detail, they were often not built to scale; towers and buttresses were typically too large or small. Nevertheless, the pieces were compelling and the Grotto was established to showcase them in 1934. As the story goes, Joseph would construct the models in the power plant during the day and place them along the path at night.

The Alamo (Source: iStock/KatieDobies).

At age 80, Brother Joseph completed his final model, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. With his life’s work completed, Joseph passed away peacefully at the abbey three years later in 1961.

The Grotto.
The Grotto (Source: iStock/KatieDobies).

The Ave Maria Grotto

Initially, the Grotto served as a common stop for Catholics on their way to vacation on the Gulf Coast. The good word about Brother Joseph and his works spread, however, and visitors of all stripes added Cullman to their lists of must-sees. In 1984, the Grotto was added to National Register of Historic Places.

Today, the Ave Maria Grotto is carefully maintained on four acres of beautifully landscaped gardens on the abbey grounds. A walk along the hillside path will take, if you stop to enjoy the sites, at least 90 minutes and wearing comfortable shoes is a must. In summer months, avoid the Alabama midday sun; if you can, visit the Grotto earlier in the morning.

The Abbey grounds include Joseph’s final resting place in the abbey cemetery, also accessible, and a Grotto gift shop. If you want to stay longer, lodging is available at the abbey guest house. For additional information, visit the Ave Maria Grotto online.