The Ave Maria Grotto Is One the Most Unique Places in Alabama 

The Ave Maria Grotto is not only one of the best kept secrets in Alabama, it is one of the best kept in the entire world.

This magical series of displays is located in Cullman Alabama and is set in a breathtaking four-acre setting.

It is set in an old quarry on the grounds of the St. Bernard Abbey and holds over 125 of the most magical and creative reproductions ever created by a human.

Father Joseph Zoettl The Man Who Built The Ava Maria GrottoFather Joseph Zoettl The Man Who Built The Ava Maria Grotto

It not only represents some of the most important themes in the Bible, but it also shows some of the most historical events as well.

However, it also has some reproductions that are pure fantasy in the truest form.

It was officially listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage in the year 1976, as well as the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

The History of the Ave Maria Grotto

Exhibit One of the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman AlabamaExhibit One of the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman Alabama

The Ave Maria Grotto has not only a very unique history; it also has one of the most interesting.

The stone and concrete reproductions are located at 1600 St Bernard Avenue, on the official grounds of the Saint Bernard Abbey.

This Abbey is the only Benedictine monastery in the State of Alabama, and this magical collection was created by Brother Joseph Zoettel, a monk that lived at the Abbey.

He made them over a period of 30 years that covered the 1930’s to the 1960’s.

What made this project even more unique were two interesting facts.

They were the materials that he used, and the fact he never stopped in this 30-year time frame.

He used several different materials to build these unique creations including seashells, pipes, tiles, brick, marbles a well as wood and concrete.

However, he also used plastic animals in them as well as costume jewelry, and in some of them he utilized jars of all kinds, as well as parts from toilets.

He was born in Bavaria in 1878, and in the year 1892 he came to the newly founded Abbey in Cullman, the Saint Bernard Abbey.

He came to this Abbey to study for the priesthood after he was recruited by a priest that was visiting Bavaria from the United States.

However, he changed directions and chose to become a Benedictine monk instead of a priest and lived in the Saint Bernard Abbey for close to 70 years.

Exhibit Two at The Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman AlabamaExhibit Two at The Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman Alabama

How the Ave Maria Grotto Was Created

The story of how the Ave Maria Grotto was created is almost as intriguing as the pieces themselves.

Brother Joe, as he became known, spent his time differently than most monks in the Abbey.

Instead of spending the majority of his time praying, he was working at the Abbey’s physical plant wherever he had time.

One of his favorite things in life had become working with his hands, and it is believed that in the year 1918 he began to make small replica models.

However, there was one major problem; he did not have any materials to work with.

So, he did the only thing he knew to do, and he started utilized materials that were left over from the construction site of the nearby monastery buildings.

He would use his history of the Bible as his early inspirations, and he begin to build his replicas.

He would build them by using old photographs he would find, or just use the descriptions found in the Bible.

Visitors to the Abbey soon begin to notice these marvelous creations, and it was not long before word began to spread about the Ave Maria Grotto.

The people that knew him the best, said this was his way of expressing himself, as he was a very quiet man, even by monk standards.

In the beginning, Brother Joe placed his structures in the outdoor recreation area in the monastery, but they were soon moved.

The reason was simple; they were attacking way too many visitors for the comfort of the other monks.

Because of this, they were relocated to a nearby limestone quarry.

After the move, this location became known as the Ave Maria Grotto, which referred to a very unique fantastical creation by Zoettel.

However, despite a lot of misconception, the name Ave Maria Grotto does not stand for or represent a specific place or even a building.

The term Ave Maria is actually a very well-known Catholic prayer, and the word “grotto” is translated as “cave” in Italian.

It is quite common for shrines or displays to be placed in caves or recesses in several countries.

While most of his creations were miniature recreations, there was one that was the exception, the Ave Marie Grotto itself.

It is huge by the other creation standards and is measured in increments of 27.

It is 27 feet high, 27 feet wide, as well as 27 feet deep, and is embellished with colored stone and stained glass, as well as tiles and seashells.

It was made from the same limestone that was used to build the quarry.

After the grotto was officially dedicated, Brother Joe continued to create replicas until he finally passed away.

He died in the year 1961, and those that knew him the best said that he hardly ever left the state of Alabama.

He is buried in the Abby’s cemetery.

The Best Known of the Ave Maria Grotto

Exhibit Three of the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman AlabamaExhibit Three of the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman Alabama

As mentioned earlier, there are over 125 replicas and reproductions in this collection, but there are some that stand out as the very best and most popular.

They include the following

  • The City of Jerusalem known as the “Jerusalem in Miniature”
  • Noah’s Ark
  • The Alamo
  • The Temple of Fairies
  • The Tower of Thanks-A personal Tribute
  • St. Peter’s Basilica
  • The Monte Cassino Abbey
  • The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes
  • The Leaning Tower of Pisa
  • The Tower of Babel
  • Herod’s Gate
  • The Basilica of the Transfiguration
  • The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
  • Our Lady of Fatima Shrine
  • The Red Cross Tower
  • World War II Memorial

The Ave Maria Grotto also contains Spanish Missions, German Castles, as well as South African shrines.

It is truly one of the Best Kept Secrets in Alabama, and well worth the day trip with your family.


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