Another roadside attraction

C. and I were heading north on I-65 to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, when we saw the billboard: “Ave Maria Grotto.” Just in case we weren’t planning to turn off the interstate, there was a line above the headline that read, “A world in miniature!”

What was God’s green earth could that mean? We hemmed and hawed, but not for long, before deciding to get off at the next exit. C. dialed Brünhilde—who rooted around online in Jackson—while I drove towards a huge golden, two-steeple church that loomed over Cullman, Alabama, on our right. To our right was a slightly smaller, but still quite large, cathedral.

If we had had more time, I would have delved more into Cullman’s history. It must have had an interesting development. Alabama—and, really, the South in general—is not known as a hotbed of Roman Catholicism, outside of Louisiana. In part due to an influx of Spanish-speaking Catholics from Cuba and Latin America, I suppose Florida and parts of the southern Gulf Coast have high concentrations of Catholics. Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor are famous Catholic southern writers, so the faith has emerged with distinction in my neck of the woods. Still, it was mildly surprising that a mid-South town (Cullman’s in northern Alabama) of 16,000 was so dominantly Catholic, in the midst of a deeply Protestant—and often specifically anti-Catholic—region.

Then again, Cullman County was founded by a Bavarian immigrant, and the town’s first primary schools were Catholic parochial schools taught in English and German. I wonder how much its residents were harassed during World War II, or the decade just before it. (For a capsule history, go here.) But John Gottfried Cullman was a Lutheran, so go figure.

By the time Joseph Zoettl was born in 1878, in Landshut, Bavaria, Cullman must have built up a strong reputation as a Catholic safe haven and a place where he could find people like those he knew back home. Still, what an adjustment. I can’t imagine he was prepared for the heat, nor the Protestants that surround the county. And who knows what he thought when he first saw a black person? (Admittedly, the aforementioned history notes that the African American presence in the county has always been small, but all the same…)

Anyway, I’m glad Brother Joseph—because he indeed became a Benedictine monk, and a hunchback to boot—moved to Alabama, and built the Ave Maria Grotto. Constructed on the grounds of St. Bernard Abbey, the first (and, to date, only) Benedictine monastery in Alabama, the grotto features over 120 buildings and scenes from the New Testament, as well as noted events from the Old Testament. There are outliers—a fairyland castle, complete with an underground dragon; a hospital memorial to abbey students who died during WWII (29 of them) and subsequent American campaigns in Vietnam and Korea.

But I should back up. We drove to the glittering two steeples that I assumed would lead us to the grotto. Again, this is before I knew how Catholic the town was. This first stop, smack dab in downtown Cullman, turned out to be Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church and Preparatory School—which has its own Benedictine order (of sisters). But there was no Ave Maria Grotto nearby. We walked around Sacred Heart in the afternoon heatglare, and meandered to the local library. A librarian pointed us in the right direction, and said, “Just go a couple of miles. You can’t miss it.”

We drove down the road, into a canopy of trees that seemed to close in on us, as the road was simultaneously narrowing. Houses were sparse. I heard dueling banjos in the back of my head. The greenness opened up into a fork in the road, and a ten-foot-tall brown sign: “AVE MARIA GROTTO.” We went right.

The entrance looked like just another roadside attraction—a small parking lot, two or three picnic tables and benches with peeling paint, a low-to-the-ground gift shop. Only the monastery—it couldn’t be mistaken for anything else, fortified but also splendid—that lurked at us from a distance told us that this was the right place.

C. is a Triple-A member, so we got our tickets for five bucks instead of seven. The kind woman behind the shop counter led us past the cheesy knick-knacks, rosary beads, t-shirts, pamphlets, and saints’ cards to the next room. Ah, yes,, I smirked on the inside, of course there’s a video. I admit that I felt a little smug—Hey, kids! Kitsch!—and the video didn’t help. C. and I kept from giggling only because the woman was in the next room, and the shop was quiet as the catacombs. We only made it through five minutes before we had to head outside, and into the grotto.

It started small. We walked down a paved path—the whole place is a well-designed, gently declining and rising park in a roughly circular trail—and observed small statues of saints and building recreations. Brother Joseph was a master of using found (and donated) items—shards of glass, scrap metal, medallions and coins, polished rocks, beads, fragments of costume jewelry, discarded toys, figurines—with concrete.

My smirk quickly left me. These structures were junky but impassioned and, if they weren’t all beautiful, they at least inspired awe. The sheer patience it must have taken to build a small-scale—but not that small; it still was a foot tall—replica of the Roman Colosseum, with the materials at all, demands respect. Still, the first portion consists of somewhat better versions of what I had expected—Christian-themed dollhouses done by a lonely man.

Brother Joseph, though, couldn’t have been very lonely. As Ave Maria grew, so did the circle of friends willing to donate items, and to help him build. We turned a corner, and the structures got bigger and more elaborate. There was the aforementioned fairyland castle, and a couple of buildings were as tall as we were. There was a landscape of Brother Joseph’s Bavarian hometown, with the humble buildings built (I assume) according to the exact specifications of his memory.

While I was peering at the interiors of miniature Landshut, C. kept opening and closing her mouth, and waving her arms at me. She spoke in splutters that weren’t quite real words. So I came over to her.

It’s been said many times that the line between genius and the looney bin is mighty thin, but I confess that I didn’t fully understand what this meant until I turned that final corner.

When you suddenly find yourself face-to-face with a ten-feet-tall expanse of re-created, historically accurate landscape of Jerusalem, complete with all the critical scenes of the four Gospels, and when you realize that this expanse stretches out for the length of a basketball court, there’s not much you can say. Well, half a basketball court. The other half of that basketball-court length was taken up by a lovingly imagined hodgepodge of the Italian countryside, featuring St. Paul’s Basilica, St. Peter’s Basilica, and—way up high—the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Everything was clearly labeled, from the scene being represented to the year of its completion. The Old Testament landscape—yes, another vast landscape crowded with buildings and statues, all built to scale and meticulously detailed—had running water on its to-scale streets.

The centerpiece was—what else?—Mary in a small cave. By small, I mean that the cave, elaborated by glass-and-concrete stalactites and cherubs, wasn’t very deep. There was enough room for a couple and a priest to stand, and it faced a beautiful lawn with flowers and a rickety bench. The Mother Mary in the back of the cave was eight feet tall, and the cave’s a few feet taller. People could get married right there, with onlookers on the lawn. I’m sure I’m not the first to have thought of this.

The landscapes overwhelmed so completely that Noah’s Ark (toy animals in couples) and the Tower of Babel (with signs in a variety of languages indicating what it was) were slight letdowns. Heading back up to the gift shop, the sculptures became more modern. Some structures were built after Joseph’s death, and the cutesy “Chipmunk Crossing” near the end didn’t match the audacity of what had come before. The sleeping cat next to the gift shop brought us out of our reverie.

Reveries, though, don’t typically come so cheaply. If you’re ever in northern Alabama, you owe it to yourself to see Brother Joseph’s celebration of his faith and crazy-beautiful contribution to the world. God bless him.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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2 Responses to Another roadside attraction

  1. Campaspe says:

    My father was from Florence, so I have driven through Cullman many times. He was also something of an apostate (and Baptist-raised to boot) so we never did get to the Ave Maria Grotto, which I have always heard is something else. I do have vivid memories of good meals at the All Steak Restaurant in Cullman, though. Probably gone now, like so many good Southern mom-and-pop joints.

  2. Aaron says:

    I’m an Alabama resident and have never gone to the Grotto, but after reading your account I’m gonna have to check it out. It sounds like what Rock City should have been.

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