Walking in a Worship Wonderland

With a name like Rudolph, it has to be good for Christmas. But, alas, the Rudolph Grotto in Rudolph, Wis., closes for fall and winter. On the bright side: There’s no time like the present to plan a visit to the Marian shrine for next spring or summer. By Eddie O’Neill.

Rudolph, Wisconsin


With a name like Rudolph, it has to be good for Christmas. You would think. But, alas, this charming spiritual way station closes for fall and winter.

On the bright side: There’s no time like the present to plan a visit for next spring or summer.

The town itself, located in central Wisconsin, displays the image of Santa’s favorite reindeer on banners lining Main Street. The cheerful secular adornments have nothing on the colorful gardens and folksy grottos that have made the shrine a favorite stop among locals in the warm-weather months.

At first glance, the hand-crafted formations of the Rudolph Grotto Gardens appear to be a throwback to the era of roadside oddities, museums and attractions. And, in fact, their construction began in the 1920s — a time when the Sunday drive was becoming a popular way to spend the afternoon after Mass.

But there’s much more to the site’s story than that. It’s the true tale of a determined priest and a promise he made to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Born in 1882, Father Philip Wagner was the son of Iowa farmers. He entered the seminary as a young man and was sent to Europe to study for the priesthood. While there he fell ill and decided to make a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Lourdes in France in hopes of a healing. He petitioned the Blessed Mother, pledging that, should his health be restored, he would build a shrine in Mary’s honor.

After praying and bathing in the shrine’s healing waters, his condition improved. Before returning to the United States for ordination, he toured Europe gathering ideas to build a Lourdes-like grotto.

In 1917, Father Wagner was assigned as the new pastor at St. Philomena’s in Rudolph. A year later plans were in the works for a new church, rectory and school. Father Wagner saw this as the perfect opportunity to begin planning his promise to the Virgin Mary. He began to lay out flower beds and arbor arrangements behind the newly planned church.

By his own admission, Father Wagner had no masonry experience. His method was trial and error as he mixed concrete in bread pans with a large wooden spoon. He spent hours each day gathering stones, rocks and trees that could be used in his creations. Some boulders weighed thousands of pounds; it took many men and plenty of ingenuity to set these in place on the parish grounds.

Curious onlookers came to the parish to see what was beginning to take shape. Among them was Edmund Rybicki, who began helping Father Wagner at the age of 12. Edmund ended up working his whole life at the parish, helping his pastor bring his promised grotto to life.

In 1928 Father Wagner completed his first grotto on the church grounds. Naturally, he dedicated it to Our Lady of Lourdes. But the priest was not satisfied with just one shrine. He would tinker and toil on his homage to Mary until his death in 1959. And other priests and laypeople would continue his work until its final project was completed in 1983.


Ageless Americana

When my kids and I arrived at the grotto, the question was obvious to us all: Where do we start? Scanning the lush garden landscape, I tried to figure out if there was a start or finish to the rock structures and myriad mini-shrines. Meanwhile, my little ones had already taken off down one of the twisting paths. I followed.

We found that, when it comes to artistic expression, the Rudolph Grotto has a little bit of everything. There are the traditional Catholic stone shrines dedicated to such saints as Philomena, Bernadette and Thérèse. As well, there are structures that capture the style of the times — sunken gardens, handcrafted planters, a soldier’s memorial and even a dioramic model of Wisconsin as seen in the 1940s.

For those who love plants and flowers, the beautiful grounds are a feast for the eyes. Each year approximately 35 pickup trucks full of flowers and potted plants are donated by local greenhouses.

In his stone structures, Father Wagner often used a variety of colored glass, marbles and shells. Much of the plaques and statues that surround the grotto are made from Carrara marble, which was hand carved in Italy.

I imagined the smell of the chicken dinner and the sounds from the dunking booth as we walked behind the grotto area to the parish picnic grounds. The spot contains a well-organized layout of stands and wooden picnic shelters, all built in the 1950s, that would rival any big-city park picnic area. I wished my kids and I had planned our visit a week earlier and been there for the big parish celebration that’s held the first Sunday of each August.


Work of Wonder

By far the most intriguing part of our visit was our journey into the Wonder Cave.

I wondered whether this manmade mountain was called the Wonder Cave because of the stunning spectacles displayed inside — or because it made me wonder how anyone could hand-build such a hulking and intricate thing.

Construction began in 1935 and was modeled after the catacombs in Rome. When it was completed 23 years later, the winding, “walk-thru” labyrinth was one-fifth of a mile long, all of it above ground.

With trepidation we entered the dimly lit cave, clinging to the railing on the side of the rock. The cave consists of 26 small shrines dedicated to the life and teachings of Jesus. Multiple plaques are here. They’re constructed of delicately punched tin and illuminated with colored lights set in the wall. Scriptural teachings and scenes, along with catechetical themes, seemed to be Father Wagner’s main interest.

Our last stop was All Souls Cemetery near the parish picnic grounds. Father Wagner was laid to rest here. His remains are at the center of a large stone memorial dedicated to the Resurrection. Two years after his death the parish honored their beloved pastor by rededicating the church to his patron saint, St. Philip the Apostle.

Before his death Father Wagner wrote: “In building this shrine, I worked to create a thing of beauty which should remain a joy forever. I know that this Grotto Shrine will be something of value, permanence and benefit.”

I think it is fair to say that his work has succeeded, and then some.

Or, stated another way: Father Wagner the self-taught mason, you’ll go down in history.


Eddie O’Neill writes from

Green Bay, Wisconsin.


Information

Rudolph Grotto Gardens

6975 Grotto Ave.

Rudolph, WI 54475

(715) 435-3120
rudolphgrotto.org


Planning Your Visit

The Grotto is open from Memorial Day through Labor Day, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Daily Mass is celebrated daily at St. Philip the Apostle parish (6957 Grotto Ave.) at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Sunday Mass is at 10:30 a.m.; Saturday vigil at 4 p.m. Confessions are heard prior to the vigil Mass.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy