Marvels of a Monk and His Miniatures

Every year, in preparation for the World Day of Tourism, the Vatican issues a special message for travelers.

Last summer, Pope Benedict XVI used the occasion to remind Christian communities that they have a role of special importance in accommodating visitors.

“In welcoming tourists,” he wrote, “they must feel committed to offering them the possibility of discovering the riches of Christ incarnate, not only through monuments and religious artworks but also in the daily life of a living Church. Moreover, since the beginning of Christianity, journeys have made possible and facilitated the dissemination of the Good News in every corner of the world.”

Those words resonated in the back of my mind recently, when I discovered — totally by chance — the Ave Maria Grotto at St. Bernard’s (Benedictine) Abbey in the mountain-lakes district of northern Alabama.

A reverent and moving story revealed itself as I learned about Benedictine Brother Joseph Zoettl (1878-1961). Born in Landshut, Bavaria, he came to the newly founded abbey in 1892. This humble man, a monk for 70 years, spent most of his life hidden in St. Bernard’s Abbey here in Cullman, shoveling coal. He was a short and sickly man, but possessed of enormous dedication and strength of character.

And he devoted his spare time to making miniature models of famous shrines, holy places and historic monuments around the world. These he fashioned out of any materials he could lay his hands on — seashells, fragments of colored-glass bottles, beads, children’s toys and bits of broken costume jewelry. He created framing from chicken wire, concrete and Alabama limestone.

Astonishingly, he based nearly all his replicas on photos. He never actually visited most of the places he re-created in such loving detail. Architects and artists who have examined his works have been amazed he worked from no plans, blueprints or specifications.

Brother Joseph built his first replica in 1912 and his last, a likeness of the Lourdes Basilica Church, in 1958. By then he was 80 years old.

Today, visitors to the grotto can take a tour through the hilly, four-acre park officially called the Ave Maria Grotto. It takes time to appreciate the workmanship and imagination in each of the 125 cement-and-stone miniatures on display. And stopping at some of them can be like making a prayerful visit to a shrine.

The most popular sets are the ones depicting the Holy Land and Rome. But American visitors will also recognize the Alamo and other significant Spanish missions, along with the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

In Charm’s Way

The first scene you come to is the Nativity in Bethlehem. It’s simple and charming. Then it’s on to the famous Benedictine Abbey of Montserrat, Spain. Soon after comes the Statue of Liberty. Brother Joseph built this as a tribute to his adopted country, reflecting his pride in becoming an American citizen.

Right away you realize that there’s no particular rhyme or reason to the order of the displays, and that not all of them are religiously themed. (One model, an affectionate nod to Bavarian folklore, shows Hansel and Gretel approaching the Temple of Fairies.) But many of the works are distinctly Catholic and, for me, they proved the most memorable of all.

Some examples: A perfect scale model of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Mobile, Ala., features two domes fashioned out of — I kid you not — discarded toilet-ball floats. The early Franciscan missions are all here — St. Augustine, San Juan Capistrano, Carmel, Mission Dolores, San Miguel, San Fernando and Santa Barbara. And a serene Our Lady of Fatima tribute is set in a secluded part of the grounds.

The artist’s ingenuity is reflected in the huge St. Peter’s Basilica. Here Brother Joseph used a discarded birdcage to form the huge dome. For Bernini’s 248 columns around the square, he used broken test tubes from the chemistry laboratory of St. Bernard’s Prep School. He would fill the tubes with cement and break the glass when the cement had set.

Nothing, it seems, was impossible for this frail artisan so endowed with faith — and with an imagination bathed in constant contemplation of Christ.

Grand Grotto

There are too many highlights among the 125 displays to do the site justice. But surely the most impressive single station is the main Ave Maria Grotto, which is not a miniature. In fact, it measures 25 feet high at its apex and is made of stone and reinforced concrete.

Workmen built the exterior under Brother Joseph’s watchful eye, and he finished the interior with its many shaped colored stalactites. It is the perfect expression of Brother Joseph’s artistic ethic. When asked why he worked so hard to make all the sides (even those that people couldn’t see) so beautiful, he replied: “God sees every side of them.”

The Ave Maria statues, imported from Italy, weigh approximately 2,000 pounds each; they had to be carefully placed — Our Lady of Prompt Succor, St. Benedict and St. Scholastica, the Blessed Virgin holding the child Jesus in her arms. A beautiful marble altar is covered with a mosaic of crushed glass, stone and seashells. A statue of St. Frances Cabrini, the first American citizen to be named a saint, looks into the grotto.

The grotto is now on the National Register of Historic Sites. Meanwhile, St. Bernard’s Benedictine Abbey offers on-site accommodations for retreats. A small selection of Brother Joseph’s tools and materials (some of which are still being sent to the abbey) are on display, and a tasteful gift shop on the premises presents a video celebrating Brother Joseph’s life.

Taken as a whole, this surprise stop off the highway reflects both the faith of one Benedictine monk and the ideal of Benedictine hospitality at its simplest and warmest. I have to believe it’s just the kind of place Pope Benedict XVI had in mind when he wrote last year’s World Day of Tourism message.

Lorraine Williams writes from

Markham, Ontario.

Planning Your Visit

Ave Maria Grotto is open all year, except for Christmas and New Year’s. There is a nominal admission fee. For more information, call (256) 734-4110 or visit on the Internet.

Getting There

The grotto and abbey are not far from Mother Angelica’s Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery. The town of Cullman is 45 miles south of Huntsville and 45 miles north of Birmingham. Take Interstate 65 to Exit 308 and drive east four miles on Route 278 to St. Bernard Abbey.