Brad Saum

One Monk’s Passion

While it is interesting to see roadside oddities, I am equally intrigued by the personal stories behind these pursuits of passion. The Ave Maria Grotto at the St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama is quite an amazing sight with an equally interesting story.

Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, Alabama.
A miniature replica of Montserrat, a mountain monastery near Barcelona, Spain.

The collection of 125 miniature replicas of buildings from around the world were imagined, designed and constructed by Brother Joseph Zoetl, a Benedictine monk of St. Bernard Abbey for almost 70 years. These structures are just a few feet tall and are scattered about a 4 acre hillside. This is just a small portion of the peaceful setting of the Abbey.

St. Bernard Abbey

A young man from Bavaria came to the newly founded St. Bernard Abbey in Alabama in 1892. Brother Joseph contributed to the operation of the Abbey by spending his days shoveling coal into the furnaces to generate electricity and the remainder of his time was occupied with prayer.

Brother Joseph replica miniature buildings at the Ave Maria Grotto.
Brother Joseph used an old bird cage in 1954 as the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which is built over the tomb of St. Peter the apostle, the first pope.

Based on his study of history and the bible, Brother Joseph’s creativity could not be contained. He gathered some unwanted materials, such as stones, broken plates, tiles, and beads. Scraps that he then meticulously crafted into little buildings bringing his imagination to life.

St. Bernard Abbey.
The miniature Grotto and Basilica in Lourdes, France was constructed at the Abbey in 1958 and was the last creation of Brother Joseph at the age of 80.

Ave Maria Grotto

These structures that emerged were essentially accurate representations of the actual places such as the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Montserrat Abbey, St. Peter’s Basilica, Monte Cassino Abbey among many others.

replica miniatures at the Ave Maria Grotto in Alabama
An accurate replica of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe which was built near Mexico City in 1709.

Amazingly, Brother Joseph had only visited six of the over 100 buildings he constructed from 1912 to 1958. The remainder were designed and subsequently built from photos and the written descriptions of others. The resulting detail and intricacies bring these tiny structures to life.

Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, American philosopher and poet

Brother Joseph’s humble passion left a legacy that still attracts visitors to the St. Bernard Abbey over fifty years after his death.

Although there were no live oak trees, no pathways lined with azalea plants and no swinging benches, there was certainly a serene atmosphere on the grounds of the St. Bernard Abbey. The tranquility is contagious and provides a great escape to reflect and recharge. The work of one man.

Brother Joseph Zoetl (1878-1961), creator of the miniature replica buildings at the Ave Maria Grotto at the St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama.
Brother Joseph Zoetl (1878-1961), creator of the miniature replica buildings at the Ave Maria Grotto at the St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama.

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