The Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman is home to a unique collection of miniature replicas of real-world shrines and buildings, as well as fantasy scenes. Located
at 1600 St. Bernard Avenue Southeast on the grounds of the Saint Bernard Abbey, Alabama's only Benedictine monastery, the collection was created by Brother Joseph Zoettel, a monk at the abbey. He built the structures
from marble, cement, and wood and decorated them with a variety of everyday items such as cold-cream jars, marbles, and even
toilet seats. The site is now a major tourist attraction.
Joseph Zoettel was born in Bavaria in 1878. In 1892, Zoettel came to the newly founded Saint Bernard Abbey in Cullman to study for the priesthood after being recruited in his home country by a visiting American priest. He instead became a Benedictine monk and lived at Saint Bernard Abbey for almost 70 years. Known as Brother Joe, Zoettel spent most of his time working at the Abbey's physical plant when not in daily prayer. Zoettel enjoyed working with his hands, and around 1918 he began building models from materials left over from construction of the monastery's buildings. Zoettel's inspiration came from his studies of the Bible and history. He constructed the edifices from photographs or textual descriptions. Of the buildings he recreated, the only ones he ever actually saw were the ones of the Abbey and from his hometown of Landshut, Bavaria.
Visitors to the abbey spread word of Zoettel's creations, and soon more visitors began to come. Some even sent unique decorative materials such as costume jewelry, colored glass, and even semi-precious stones. Zoettel created his 125 masterpieces over 40 years, incorporating materials sent to him from around the world. In 1958, when he was 80 years old, he built his last miniature, the Lourdes Basilica Church, based on the church in Lourdes, France.
At first, Zoettel placed his structures in the monastery's outdoor recreation area. When the miniatures began attracting
too many visitors to suit the monks' meditative needs, the monks moved the popular creations to the nearby limestone quarry
where the blocks for Saint Bernard Abbey's buildings were hewn. The site was officially named the Ave Maria Grotto in 1934,
referring to a unique fantastical creation by Zoettel called "The Ave Maria Grotto." Created as a special shrine for Saint
Bernard Abbey, the work does not represent a specific building or place. Ave Maria is a well-known Catholic prayer, and the
word grotto means cave in Italian. Many shrines in other countries are found in recesses, if not in actual caverns. Unlike the rest of Zoettel's
creations, the Ave Maria Grotto is 27 feet high, 27 feet wide, and 27 feet deep. It is constructed from the same limestone
used to build the Saint Bernard quarry as well as reinforced concrete. Some of the faux stalactites are fashioned from marble
quarried at the Gantt quarry in Sylacauga, Talladega County. The grotto is embellished with tiles, seashells, colored stone and glass.
After the grotto was dedicated, Zoettel continued to create miniature replicas and place them on the natural ledges and small recesses of the old quarry. Some of the miniatures, such as St. Peter's Basilica, stand alone. But there are also extensive groupings, the most famous being the City of Jerusalem, often called "Jerusalem in Miniature," which is sometimes used as an alternate name for the park. Most of the miniatures represent well-known places, such as the Alamo, but some of the structures are biblical, such as Noah's ark, and some are purely imaginary, such as the Temple of the Fairies. Some, such as Brother Joseph's Tower of Thanks, are personal tributes created in appreciation for the building materials he received from friends all over the world. Zoettel died on October 15, 1961, and was buried in the abbey's cemetery. The Ave Maria Grotto is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and attracts some 20,000 or more visitors each year. A number of events occur at the site, including the annual arts and crafts Bloomin' Festival. The entire park covers more than three acres and includes a gift shop, an easily accessible parking lot, and a picnic area.
Morris, John. Miniature Miracle. Huntsville, Ala.: Honeysuckle Imprint, 1991.
Pell, Karren. Alabama Troubadour. Montgomery, Ala.: River City Publishing, 2003.
Published May 14, 2007
Last updated September 28, 2010