Alabama’s Ave Maria Grotto

At St. Bernard’s Abbey in Alabama, the Ave Maria Grotto preserves a hillside filled with miniature buildings and shrines created as a labor of love by Brother Joseph Zoettl.

Alabama’s Ave Maria Grotto includes more than a hundred miniatures, the majority of religious shrines and buildings. (photo by Lori Erickson)

Near the town of Cullman in northern Alabama stands St. Bernard Abbey, a Benedictine monastery for men founded in 1891. Its grounds include the charming Ave Maria Grotto, which features 125 miniatures created by Brother Joseph Zoettl, a monk at the abbey for almost 70 years.

A statue of Brother Joseph Zoettl stands overlooking the Ave Maria Grotto he created. (photo by Lori Erickson)

Brother Joseph was born in 1878 in Landshut, Bavaria. After immigrating to the U.S., in 1892 he joined the newly founded St. Bernard Abbey. During his decades at the monastery he worked in the abbey’s power house, where he shoveled coal into the furnaces.

Beginning around 1912, Brother Joseph began to build miniatures of stone, concrete and wood, embellishing them with materials such as beads, seashells, broken pottery and ceramic tile. The tiny structures were installed in the monastery’s gardens and became such a popular tourist attraction that they became a distraction from the peacefulness of the abbey. To better accommodate visitors, in 1934 the miniatures were moved to their present location, a former stone quarry adjacent to the abbey.

A Tiny World

Today the Ave Maria Grotto, which is located on a landscaped hillside, attracts visitors from around the world. A paved path winds down the hill and then up again, providing close-up views of the miniatures interspersed with greenery. At the bottom of the hill is an actual grotto (an Italian word meaning “cave”). Inside the artificially constructed cavern is a statue of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, an altar, and assorted religious statues.

An artificial grotto (cave) is located at the bottom of the hillside. (photo by Lori Erickson)

Most of the tiny structures are replicas of real-world shrines and buildings, from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the Statue of Liberty and the Temple in Jerusalem. Virtually all were constructed from photographs or printed descriptions. The inspiration for other miniatures came from Brother Joseph’s vivid imagination, such as a Temple of the Fairies.

While the majority of the miniatures at Alabama’s Ave Maria Grotto are of religious shrines, the Temple of the Fairies shows that Brother Joseph also created scenes from his imagination. (photo by Lori Erickson)

Brother Joseph’s final miniature, which was of the Lourdes Basilica in France, was completed in 1958 when he was 80 years old. The monk died in 1961 and is buried in the abbey cemetery on the hill above the grotto.

The Ave Maria Grotto, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, has become a major tourist attraction in Alabama. Fittingly, it is overseen by a bronze statue of Brother Joseph, whose work continues to be enjoyed by many.

In addition to the grotto, the grounds include the St. Bernard Abbey Retreat and Conference Center, which welcomes both groups and individual pilgrims.

One of the most elaborate of the miniatures at Alabama’s Ave Maria Grotto is a replica of St. Peter’s in Rome. (photo by Lori Erickson)



Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of books that include Every Step Is HomeThe Soul of the Family TreeNear the Exit and Holy RoverHer website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.

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