Situated among the lush wooded hills of Cullman, Alabama, in northern Alabama lies a world of miniature creations carefully crafted of recycled materials. Built by Brother Joseph Zoettl, it was dedicated on May 17, 1934, and named Ave Maria Grotto. More than just a roadside attraction, it’s a place of spiritual nourishment and a solemn reminder of the power of faith and dedication that is visited by more than 35,000 people every year.
The History of the Grotto
Ave Maria Grotto opened in its present location to the public in 1934, but its origin goes back further than that. Brother Joseph Zoettl, a monk at St. Bernard Abbey, began creating replicas around 1912. Although he had only seen about 6 of the actual places that he replicated, he was able to create the others by looking at photographs or reading printed descriptions of them.
The replicas were originally placed in the gardens near the monastery and were later moved to the current location due to the large number of visitors.
The grotto is on the site of the old quarry that was once used by the Abbey.
You could say that Brother Zoettle was an early pioneer of recycling. He used various materials such as stones, concrete, costume jewelry, sea shells, and broken plates to create these miniature masterpieces. Through his ingenuity and hard work, he crafted many replicas that can still be seen today including a replica of the temple in Jersualem, the Pantheon, Gethsemani, and Jacob’s Well.
Brother Zoettl was born in Landshut, Bavaria, (Germany) in 1878. In 1892, he came to Alabama and spent his life as a monk praying and working in the Abbey power house.
He made his first creation around 1912 and his last miniature creation was the Lourdes Basilica Church, in 1958 when he was 80 years old.
Brother Joseph passed away in 1961 and is buried in the Abbey’s cemetery, not far from his beloved Ave Maria Grotto.
Take a quick peek at the trailer from the movie Brother Joseph and the Grotto – it will give you a glimpse of the life of the man behind the grotto.
Visiting the Grotto
When you enter the welcome center/gift shop, you will pay a small entrance fee and be handed a self-guided tour brochure. It’s a great guide to the miniature replicas that are on the site.
The first station commemorates Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus.
Among the other 124 structures, you will see castles, towers, mountains, temples, wonders of the world, and statues. You’ll see miniature reproductions of the Great Wall of China, the Statue of Liberty, the Alamo, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Colosseum, the Tower of Babel, and various shrines of the world.
Children will delight in seeing a replication of Noah’s Ark, the Temple of the Fairies, and a lizard condo.
Most of the structures are of the Holy Land or Europe. There are 10 structures in the Italian section alone. Other countries are also represented, such as Korea (Benedictine Monastery in Korea), Mexico City (Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe), and the United States (Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Green Bay, Wisconsin).
The grotto is open to all visitors who are interested in exploring this unique attraction. It’s a great place for families to talk about their faith while soaking up the beauty of Brother Zoettl’s creation. Whether you are a believer or not, Ave Maria Grotto is sure to leave you in awe and admiration of what faith can accomplish.
The story of Brother Joseph Zoettl’s dedication and drive to craft these miniature masterpieces has surely inspired many, making this place an unforgettable experience! Its rich history has landed it on the National Register of Historic Places.
Saint Bernard Abbey
In 1840, German monks came to America and established the St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. They sent monks to Alabama to serve the needs of German Catholics in the state. They founded Saint Bernard Abbey in 1891 and today it is the only Benedictine monastery of men in the state of Alabama.
Currently, there are 30 men in the monastery community which still ministers to the Catholic population of the area. The abbey also has a prep school that offers an education steeped in the Benedictine tradition.
Hours and Rates
Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for teens ages 13-17, $7 for children ages 5-12, $8 for seniors and AAA members, $7 for military/veterans/first responders, and free for children ages 4 and younger. Parking is free at the grotto.
The grotto is open from 9:00 am until 5:00 pm Monday through Saturday and from 11:30 am until 5:00 pm on Sundays. It is closed on New Year’s Day, Easter, 4th of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
Be aware that pets are not permitted at the grotto and it is not wheelchair accessible.
The Ave Maria Grotto is located on the grounds of St. Bernard Abbey at 1600 St. Bernard Drive SE in Cullman, Alabama. It’s approximately 1 hour south of Huntsville.