The Rocky Road to Redemption

Five Easters ago, Pope John Paul II issued his “Letter to Artists.”

It was a clarion call to “all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new ‘epiphanies’ of beauty so that, through their creative work as artists, they may offer these as gifts to the world.”

More than 75 years prior, Father Paul Dobberstein — pastor, artist, amateur geologist — discerned this very call. He responded by creating nine grottos, each aimed at bringing visitors closer to God through the beauty of creation and the story of salvation. The Grotto of the Redemption, as the nine works are collectively known, has since attracted more than 5 million visitors to its corner of West Bend, Iowa.

The idea for the site came to Father Dobberstein, a German immigrant, during his final year in the Seminary of St. Francis in Milwaukee. Stricken with a virulent case of pneumonia, he implored the Blessed Virgin for her inter-cession. He promised that, if he regained his health, he would build a shrine in her honor.

He did indeed recover. Shortly after his ordination, he was assigned to Sts. Peter and Paul Church in West Bend. Once settled in his new home, the priest began to collect geological specimens from all over the western United States and overseas. He would use these specimens to build the promised shrine for the Blessed Virgin.

In 1912, about 12 years after his arrival in West Bend, Father Dobberstein laid the first stone for the Marian Grotto. During the next 42 years, with the help of a local farmer's son named Matthew Szerensce, the priest continued collecting eye-catching rocks and using them to complete the nine grottos.

Eight years before Father Dobberstein's death, Father Louis Greving was appointed associate pastor for Sts. Peter and Paul. In addition to his pastoral duties, Father Greving took it upon himself to help Father Dobberstein and Szerensce with the grotto project. In fact, after Father Dobberstein died and Szerensce retired, Father Greving continued as director of the grotto until retiring, after 50 years of service, in 1996.

Rock-Solid Welcome

When I visited, I was repeatedly amazed by the sanctifying sights before me. I marveled over the attention, talent and commitment it must have taken for those three men to realize Father Dobberstein's ambitious and meticulous vision. I decided that such inspiration could not have come without the working of the Holy Spirit in their hearts.

Before beginning my tour, I, like so many others before me, paused at the entrance. Here a pair of pillars, both adorned with carefully placed gems and stones, support an archway. The columns are made of malachite with dots of tiger's-eye. Across the archway is a mosaic “Welcome” of turquoise and gold.

Looking into the grotto, I realized that every square inch is covered in decorative stones and gems, many of them placed together to form eye-catching designs. In fact, this geological collection is one of the largest in the world. It has been valued at more than $4 million.

As I wandered the grounds, I found agates from all over the world, along with quartz, lapis, turquoise, petrified wood, conch shells and pearl. I also saw some rubies, sapphires and a host of other rare rocks that my untrained eye couldn't identify.

Although the geological collection is a wonder all its own, you'd be missing the point if you failed to notice that it's not an end in itself. The beauty is at the service of the Gospel, as the nine grottos combine to tell the salvation story with Father Dobberstein's unique brand of evangelical zeal and catechetical flair. Count them: There's the Grotto of Paradise Lost, Mary's Grotto, the Grotto of Bethlehem, the Grotto of Nazareth, the Grotto of the Sermon on the Mount, the Grotto of the Ten Commandments, the Grotto of Gethsemane, the Grotto of the Stations of the Cross and the Grotto of the Resurrection.

For me, Mary's Grotto — the original shrine Father Dobberstein promised to Our Blessed Mother — had the greatest appeal of all. On its exterior, the words “Grotto of the Redemption” are inscribed in white marble. Above the inscription stands a life-sized marble statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, proclaiming that it is his love that saves us. The interior walls of the shrine are covered in tiny shells, rocks, quartz and stalactites.

The centerpiece of this grotto is a marble statue of our Blessed Mother holding the infant Jesus. To the left of the statue is a Bavarian stained-glass window depicting the Annunciation. Behind is a background made of dark stone; gold mosaics have been placed here to create the illusion of stars encircling her head, as described in Revelation 12:1 — “… a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of 12 stars.”

Heavenly Handiwork

On the right wall of this cave, Father Dobberstein masterfully fashioned shells and stones into a small chair symbolizing the authority of Christ, his apostles and their successors.

On the chair is a mosaic of the keys of Peter and a stole symbolizing the priesthood. Above the chair are a chalice and host, crafted with white stone to symbolize Christ's saving power and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

The grotto is covered by a 30-foot dome. This is dotted with small mosaics of stars and circled by small marble angels who, I imagine, sing the “Holy, Holy, Holy” without ceasing.

Pausing here, I was reminded that, while we venerate our Blessed Mother for her crucial role in the story of salvation, she will always point us to her Son, who — through his own great and enduring work of art, the Church — continues to call man home to the Kingdom of God.

Joy Wambeke writes from

St. Paul, Minnesota.