Alabama #7: Ave Maria Grotto

A series of weekly posts about Birmingham, Alabama and the surrounding area. See Post #1,  Post #2, Post #3, Post #4, Post #5, Post #6. This is Post #7 of 7.

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Before visiting Ave Maria Grotto I imagined it to be a collection of folk art in a farm field in the middle of nowhere, a true roadside attraction. In my defense, my friend described it as such, though he had never visited. Intriguing folk art, roadside America, and the fact that someone said I should definitely see it (being a preservationist) was all the convincing I needed. We drove 45 minutes north of Birmingham, AL to Cullman, AL, a town that was sleeping on that Sunday or more likely at church and brunch.

After navigating our way through Cullman with only a few u-turns (it took one driver, one navigator, and two backseat drivers) we found our way to the St. Bernard Abbey, where the Ave Maria Grotto is located. To our surprise, we didn’t find a farm field; but rather a parking lot and large visitor’s center / gift shop.

What is the Ave Maria Grotto? It is widely known as “Jerusalem in Miniature”. It is a four-acre landscaped park that is home to the lifetime work of Brother Joseph Zoettl, a Benedictine Monk at the St. Bernard Abbey. His work is 125 miniature replicas of historic and famous buildings throughout the world, constructed of stone, concrete, materials such as glass, marbles, cold cream jars, costume jewelry plate chips, tiles, and more.  

Brother Joseph Zoettl (1878-1961) worked on the Grotto from 1934-1958, always studying photographs of places (he had never visited the places he replicated) and working with the materials with extreme patience and commitment.  The Ave Maria Grotto is 40 years worth of Brother Zoettl’s work. After his death, a man who had worked with Brother Zoettl continued the artistic tradition, adding new miniature replicas to the site.

Ave Maria Grotto is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for Architecture/Engineering with a historic and current function of landscape as well as recreation and culture.  

When visiting, you may take a self guided tour or a guided tour.  We were able to do a bit of both tours, beginning on our own but reading the plaques in front each replica as well as the pamphlet we received with our tickets. Towards the end, the man who currently works on the Grotto was giving a tour, so we followed along to listen. The entire experience is fascinating; especially when you imagine Brother Zoettl working years on these pieces and moving them and deciding on how each structure relates to another. 

You may think that it’s a destination for those who would consider themselves religious, since it is in the St. Bernard Abbey.  However, visitors can make it whatever they want. To some, it is a religious experience, but to others it can be a cultural or architectural experience.  Many of the buildings are from Jerusalem, but just as many are not. There is a memorial to Red Cross workers, Hansel & Gretel’s house, a fairy cottage, the Roman Coliseum, the tower in Newport, Rhode Island, and others. Regardless of your religious background and beliefs, it is a unique site to see and well worth it.

See the gallery of images below. Click on a picture for a larger version.