Vatican City in miniature.

Ave Maria Grotto

Field review by the editors.

Cullman, Alabama

Benedictine Monk Joseph Zoettl spent 50 years crafting cement, stones and junk into a miniature city of the world's most important religious structures. Born in 1878 in Bavaria, he was maimed in an accident that gave him a hunchback, but luckily didn't hurt his ability to bend over and build tiny things. Brother Joe died in 1961, and all 125 of his buildings still stand, protectively nestled on the campus of St. Bernard Abbey.

(Brother Joseph is still around in the form of a life-size bronze statue dedicated in 2009. He stands next to one of his miniature buildings for scale.)

Miniatures on the hillside.

The gift shop provides entry to a forested trail, winding down past several miniature building clusters and junk-bejeweled shrines. Round a bend, and you see it -- an entire hillside packed in urban splendor with cathedrals and famous buildings. It's hard not to take a good picture, with the Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica sharing the frame with the Monte Casino Abbey and the Alamo. During our visit , a cat -- dubbed the "Abby Tabby" -- was leaping from cathedral roof to roof in search of rodents.

Brother Joe did allow himself some architectural indulgences -- the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Hansel and Gretel's Temple of the Fairies, the Abbey Power Station (where he worked shoveling coal -- the Grotto was just one of those crazy hobbies that got out of control). There's also the occasional pagan temple, but Catholic cathedrals and monasteries dominate, decorated with sea shells, marbles, and costume jewelry. The scale is, well, distorted -- towers and buttresses too large or small. The literature admits that nothing is scaled accurately. And the buildings on the steep hill can only be viewed from a narrow angle . . .

One half of the hillside features buildings and scenes from the Holy Land. There's also a central artificial cave -- the Ave Maria Grotto -- with the standard fake stalactite encrusted ceiling, statues of Mary and assorted monks and nuns.

Rebuilding the Tower of Babel

Brother Joe's

The replicas are well-maintained, brightly colored, as if completed last month ... in better shape than most of the rock gardens and mini-Jerusalems around the US. At the Hanging Gardens of Babylon we find out one of the reasons: 70-something-year-old repairman Leo Schwaiger. He's busy painting the Gardens with outdoor Latex. Leo's been here for forty years, actually worked side-by-side with Brother Joe before his death.

Leo's role is, for the most part, unpublicized by the Grotto management, perhaps because he is a hired hand. But it's critical. "One winter a tree fell on the Tower of Babel and nearly destroyed it. I had to do a lot of work on that one." He fights a constant battle with vandals and nature, restoring buildings as needed.

Leo has created some new miniatures further up the trail. Today, he seems most proud of his touch of humor at the trail end -- a "Chipmunk Crossing" with tiny gates and ramps. It's near the Hiroshima Peace Church.

Brother Joe's Secret

Leo takes us to Brother Joe's old workshop, and shows us rotting scrapbooks of the reference material for most of the replicas -- postcards! Brother Joe, being a monk and all, didn't travel much. In fact, he'd only seen a few of the real-life buildings -- those in his hometown of Landshut, and those on the St. Bernard Abbey campus. The rest are based on postcards -- one-sided images with the usual distortions of perspective and tourism.

"That's why the building scale is all wrong -- he had nothing to compare it to," explains Leo. It also explains the one-sided vantage of the hillside -- Brother Joseph could only speculate on what the back and sides of things looked like. The workshop contains drawers of junk jewelry, baubles, buckets of marbles, piles of tiles. Leo has a big seashell restoration to do on the side of a church, so he's thankful for these contributions by Grotto friends and visitors.

Leo gets to work over here a day or two a week -- hardly enough time to do new construction. He shows us newer postcards of cathedrals in Spain the Abbot has visited. Over the years, Leo has created these buildings to the same postcard specs that inspired Brother Joseph.

For now, they're keeping him busy helping with the construction of an Abbey infirmary. Full-sized.

Ave Maria Grotto

St. Bernard College

Address:
1600 St. Bernard Dr. SE, Cullman, AL
Directions:
Off I-65, on St. Bernard College campus - US 278 and 69.
Hours:
Apr-Sep 9 am - 6 pm, Oct-Mar 9 am - 5 pm (Call to verify)
Phone:
256-734-4110
Admission:
Admission
RA Rates:
Major Fun
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