Ave Maria Grotto by AlabamaSouthern (Alabama Photo Spot)

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Ave Maria Grotto-Photo by AlabamaSouthern

Ave Maria Grotto

Hidden in the woods on the outskirts of Cullman, Alabama is a wonderous photography destination known as the Ave Maria Grotto. Here, in the most unlikely of places, visitors will find the meticulous craftsmanship of a miniature world. Sometimes referred to as “Little Jerusalem” this folk art masterpiece is the work of Brother Joseph.

Ave Maria Grotto is the handiwork of a Byzantine Monk born in Bavaria named Brother Joseph (né Michael Zoettl). Brother Joseph spent over 50 years painstakingly bringing his creation to life.

Brother Joseph and Little Jerusalem

Brother Joseph suffered from cervical kyphosis, which left him with a slightly hunched back. Arriving in Cullman, Alabama in 1892 as a student at St. Bernard’s Abbey he eventually took his vows in 1897. Brother Joseph was forbidden from being ordained as a priest due to restrictive rules preventing those with visibly distracting disabilities from the profession. Instead, he laboured in the Abbey’s power plant, shovelling coal, pumping oil and watching gauges.  While important work that supplied the burgeoning Abbey campus with electricity, it was no doubt monotonous.

Perhaps to escape the drudgery of this role, he began building small grottoes of small rocks and shells around religious statues. The enterprising Abbey staff began selling these to tourists. While no official count exists, it is rumoured Brother Joseph built over 5,000 miniature grottos to help raise money for St. Bernard’s Abbey.

Eventually, Brother Joseph expanded beyond these small grottos and began building miniature Holy Land structures. In time he had enough to build a small outdoor display he called “Little Jerusalem.” The abbot took notice and suggested he build more and incorporate them into a nearby forested hillside along a walking trail.

Ave Maria Grotto is Born

Brother Joseph began constructing buildings for what would become Ave Maria Grotto by referencing his well-worn collection of postcard photos. Of all the buildings in the Grotto Brother Joseph had only seen about 6 in person. Most of the time Brother Joseph only had one view of the buildings so often his creations would show only the front of a famous landmark and have the false front appearance of a wild west saloon. In total Brother Joseph would eventually build over 150 creations for the Grotto.

The replica buildings would be made of stones, concrete, shells and other found objects including at times bicycle reflectors and other unusual objects. To protect the miniature villages he constructed the architectural supports and surroundings also became more elaborate and the Grotto more and more impressive. in time the result would be an over-the-top bit of folk art that would attract thousands of visitors over the years to marvel at the incredibly detailed recreations.

Brother Joseph would continue his work until his death in 1961. To commemorate him and his creation a bronze statue was commissioned in 2009 to pay tribute to this quiet and reserved monk.

Visiting Ave Maria Grotto

Today visitors can explore miniature replicas of the Holy Land, Roman landmarks, and more for a small fee ($8.00 for adults and Children under 5/free at the time of this writing). Photography is welcome, and pictures of the Ave Maria Grotto miniatures are almost as mesmerizing as real life because of the incredible detail and accuracy. The Ave Maria Grotto is open 9-5 Mon-Sat and 11:30-5 Sundays excluding holidays. For an extra treat, the hours are extended during the Christmas holidays when the Grotto is lit up with Christmas lights. For photographers, or frankly, anyone, travelling or visiting Cullman, Alabama, the Ave Maria Grotto is a must-visit.

(Cullman, Alabama)