One of the most amazing pieces of religious folk art in the Midwest is found in the small town of Dickeyville in southwest Wisconsin. Located beside the Holy Ghost Roman Catholic Church, the Dickeyville Grotto and Shrines are dedicated to the love of God and the love of country.
The landmark was created by Father Mathias Wernerus, who served the Holy Ghost parish from 1918 to his death in 1931. Using stone, mortar, glass, tiles, fossils, shells, petrified wood, and brightly colored objects of dizzying variety, he created a series of interconnected grottos and shrines that fill much of a city block.
Wernerus was a German-born immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1904. He completed his educational training at St. Francis Seminary near Milwaukee and was ordained a priest in 1907. When he came to Holy Ghost, he found a congregation still in mourning over the deaths of three of its sons during World War I. Wernerus led a drive to refurbish the church’s cemetery and erect a soldiers monument in honor of the fallen.
Once Wernerus caught the building bug, he didn’t stop. With a passionate love for his faith and for his adopted country, Wernerus decided to create a shrine honoring both. Stone was gathered from nearby limestone quarries, from the bluffs along the Mississippi River, and from as far away as the Dakotas. Precious and semi-precious gems and other materials were brought in from all the U.S. states and several foreign countries, including Israel and Italy. The grotto includes amethysts, onyx, agates, and a wide selection of marble, as well as porcelain figurines, table centerpieces, glassware, and even iron door-knockers (I didn’t see a kitchen sink embedded anywhere, but that seems to be about the only thing that’s missing). Working without blueprints, he poured concrete, set stones, and applied decorative materials. In nice weather he worked outside; in inclement weather he moved his projects inside.
The park-like shrine includes many sections, so take your time as you stroll through it. At its entrance is a grotto dedicated to the Blessed Mother, flanked by flags bearing the words “Religion” and “Patriotism.” Embedded into the surrounding walls are niches devoted to the fruits of the spirit, including wisdom, understanding, knowledge, piety and counsel.
Continue into the grounds and you’ll find a patriotic shrine with statues of Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln, along with replicas of the Liberty Bell and an eagle of white carrara marble.
Father Wernerus died in 1931, his head still abuzz with plans for new additions to the shrine. Appropriately, he is buried in the cemetery just a short distance from his masterwork.
The Dickeyville Grotto is open seven days a week. You’ll find it at 305 West Main Street in Dickeyville. Admission is free but donations are appreciated. A small gift store is open seven days a week during the summer and on weekends the rest of the year. For information call (608) 568-3119 or see Dickeyville Grotto.