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Updated on June 23, 2015

Ave Maria Grotto, known throughout the world as "Jerusalem in Miniature,"

a beautifully landscaped, four-acre park designed to provide a natural setting for the 125 miniature reproductions of some of the most famous historic buildings and shrines of the world. The masterpieces of stone and concrete are the lifetime work of Brother Joseph Zoettl, a Benedictine monk of St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama.


Bob Bennett (SBC'68) in foreground

Picture taken June 2008

Brother Joseph Zoettl, O.S.B.

Born in Landshut, Bavaria in 1878,

The builder of the miniatures at the Ave Maria Grotto was a Benedictine Monk--Brother Joseph,he was maimed in an accident that gave him a hunchback, but luckily it did not hurt his ability to bend over and build the miniatures. Bro. Joe came to Saint Bernard Abbey in 1892. He was appointed to the power plant for the Abbey, and while there he developed his hobby of building miniature shrines.

In contemplating the main grotto, which was to be the centerpiece of the whole park, Br. Joseph had yet to decide on the type of building materials he would employ and where they would come from. A partial solution was handed to him on April 29, 1933, when there was a derailment of the L&N railroad about twenty miles away near Vinemont, Alabama. One freight car full of marble from the Gantt Quarry, Sylacauga, Alabama overturned and the marble was crushed. It was useless to the owner so he gave it to the Abbey. The monks went up and carted it down to the Abbey grounds; it was exactly what Brother Joseph needed as the main stalactites to hang in the Grotto.

The first replicas were erected on the monastery recreation grounds, but because of the large number of visitors, a new site was selected and on May 17, 1934 the Ave Maria Grotto was dedicated. Brother Joseph continued his work for over 40 years, using materials sent from all over the world. He built his last model, the Basilica in Lourdes, at the age of 80, in 1958.

More detailed information can be found in the book titled Miniature Miracle by John Morris sold in the Grotto gift shop.

Just a few thoughts on the GROTTO

I wondered what I was getting myself into. Some people suggested the gotto was great, another refered to it as a "little garden of horror". Upon entering the gift shop I knew that there would be no garden of horror. Every spot was filled with religious souvenirs, enough so that it made this non-catholic feel right at home surrended by all the Catholic belief. I truly believe that the only religious boundry of the Grotto is that one believe in God.

Upon entering the garden I could not have been prepared for the overwhelming feeling that I had, even if I'd known what to expect. The detail is outstanding, in the replicas created there, and it is a true example of what one can accomplish if one sets their eyes on God for strength.

I remember saying once when I was talking with my friend about the mini-churches, "I hope he is in heaven." At that moment a feeling rushed through my body that assured me that Joseph Zoettl was in heaven; his eternal home. That probably sounds strange, but I truly believe that I was in the presence of 'God' that day.

My advice, tour the Grotto, take your time and think about the work that Brother Joseph poured into the pieces. Think of how pleased God must have been that someone would dedicate their life to such a wonderful project. And set aside your demonination and see the beauty of the Grotto through the eyes of Brother Joseph, a man who truly loved God.

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Tornado but not Grotto

The Ave Maria Grotto , mjust off the campus road of St. Bernard Prep, at St. Bernard Abbey, and Benedictine monastery. This historical place has more than 125 miniature handmade replicas of historic religious buildings and shrines.

Brother Martin Weidner, a monk who lives at the Cullman monastery, says the Abbey's grounds were in the path of the storms.

Yet the Abbey and the cement structures and other treasures in the grotto were spared by winds that shattered residences and buildings just miles away. The grotto mostly represents the artwork of a monk who lived at the Abbey for nearly 70 years.

Surrounded by religious inspiration and natural beauty, the space offers respite from the surrounding devastation.


2011 no damage

one historic spot went untouched by destruction

The Ave Maria Grotto, also known as "Jerusalem in Miniature," rests on a hillside at St. Bernard Abbey, the state's only Benedictine monastery. The artistic refuge is made up of more than 125 miniature handmade replicas of historic religious buildings and shrines.

Created during a lifetime of monastic dedication, the grotto mostly represents the artwork of Brother Joseph Zoetl, a monk who lived at the Abbey for nearly 70 years.

Replicas of structures like St. Peter's Basilica, the Pantheon and the Alamo bring visitors from across the world to the 4-acre park in Cullman. Although not all of the replicas have religious themes, many visitors see the park as a place of inspiration.

Cathy May, a worker at the park's gift shop, says the site has seen an increase in traffic since the tornadoes crashed through the state April 27.

As residents continue rebuilding, some find a place of tranquility in the grotto.

Cullman residents Diane Moore and John Flannigan visited the grotto recently, admiring the intricate details of the miniature structures perched on the hillside of a former stone quarry. They said the solitude of the location was comforting.

"We came out here after the storms to make sure it was still here," said Moore.

The cement miniatures and other treasures in the grotto were spared by winds that shattered residences and buildings just miles away.

"It's a blessing," said Flannigan.

Surrounded by religious inspiration and natural beauty, the marvelous space offers respite from the devastation so close at hand.

"It's peaceful knowing that we can come here, and that nothing has changed in this place," said Moore.

Brother Martin Weidner, a monk who lives at the monastery, says the grounds of the Abbey were in the direct line of the path of the storms.

"I actually saw the tornado coming directly toward us," said Weidner, who witnessed his first Alabama tornado from the window of his second-story bedroom in the monastery.

"We all ran to the basement," he said. "It was scary."

As the tornado ripped through Cullman, it destroyed several of the community's churches. The Abbey was spared. So was The Sacred Heart Catholic Church, located nearby.

May described the joy she felt when she realized her church was still standing.

"As we turned the corner to visit the Abbey, the first thing we see is the two gold crosses on top of Sacred Heart. We were relieved that our church was untouched."

"Some people are saying that God protected us," said May. "God is God, no matter what religion you are ... but you can drive around this site and see no damage here."

Weidner says he is glad the Abbey grounds and grotto are serving as places of peace.

"We have a lot to offer," he said. "It is important for people to know there is hope."

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