Grotto of the Redemption
West Bend, Iowa
The Grotto of the Redemption is a titanic landmark to religious devotion and dogged labor. As a young seminarian, Paul Dobberstein fell gravely ill with pneumonia, and promised to build a shrine of precious stones to the Virgin Mary if she interceded for him. Mary apparently liked the idea, Dobberstein recovered and became a priest, and in 1898 he was sent from Germany to the tiny town of West Bend, Iowa -- one of the worst places in the world to build a shrine, since West Bend has no precious stones.
Father Dobberstein was not deterred. For 14 years he stockpiled building material, mostly rocks that the local farmers pulled from their fields. Then he got to work. Foundations were dug, concrete was poured, rocks were set into slabs that were then bolted into place. When Father Dobberstein needed help, he would walk to a local pool hall and hire laborers for cash and beer. The mineral-minded Father weighed only 135 pounds, and his hands would crack and bleed into the cement at the end of a hard day's work. "There isn't any redemption," he would tell concerned parishioners, "without a little blood."
Father Dobberstein completed his Marian shrine and then kept going. He hoisted and pounded and cemented for 42 years until he had built a miraculous mound that covered a city block, the largest grotto in the world. He did it mostly with muscle power, working until the moment of his death in 1954, when he laid down his trowel at the end of a long and likely strenuous day.
Catholicism appreciates stagecraft, and Father Dobberstein knew that the grander his grotto, the more people would visit and be won to the faith. So he worked every imaginable colorful mineral and crystal into his design, washing the snazziest stones in his bathtub before carefully cementing them in place. He traveled hundreds of miles to rock havens such as Hot Springs, Arkansas, and the Black Hills of South Dakota to collect materials. He paid people to crawl into Carlsbad Caverns and break off formations. Glued into the grotto walls are semi-precious gems, logs of petrified wood, even a rock from the South Pole. Tons of stone were hauled to Iowa in railroad box cars, year after year, for a project that had no blueprint.
Viewed from a distance, the Grotto today looks brown and spongy. Many of the rocks that once gleamed in the bathtub have dulled after decades in the weather. But the grounds are spotless, and the grotto itself is in excellent repair: no cracks, no loose rocks -- and there must be millions of rocks -- a testament to Father Dobberstein's diligent construction.
Visitors are dwarfed by encrusted towers, cracked-coral tapestries, and big, irregular spires of petrified wood. Narrow walkways squeeze under arches, up staircases, around pediments, past alcoves. The entire mass tops out at 40 feet, surmounted by an empty cross with a marble Jesus slumped at its base. Each shiny agate and chunk of pink quartz doubtless reaffirmed Father Dobberstein's devotion to Mary, and her mysterious grotto plan.
In his last years Father Dobberstein was assisted by a young assistant, Father Louis Greving, who continued the work and added a rock-encrusted museum and a life-size bronze statue of his mentor, clutching a hammer and holding out a rock for approval. The real hammer is one of the featured exhibits in the museum, as is the microphone that Father Dobberstein used when he gave tours, and a coat that was made from the bear that he kept at the Grotto until it mauled a visitor.
Compared to other America's other rocky religious shrines -- Wisconsin's Dickeyville Grotto, Alabama's Ave Maria Grotto, Indiana's Ultraviolet Apocalypse Grotto -- well, there really is no comparison. The Grotto of the Redemption out-gems and out-glorifies them all.
Father Greving himself passed away in 2002, and the grotto is now under the stewardship of a church deacon. New construction is clearly secondary to maintenance and upkeep, outsourced to regional stonemasons and artisans. They're good, but they're not under contract to Mary, and the grotto seems likely to remain as it is for the present, its century-old vision on hold until a new Father Dobberstein arrives to take up the work.