Rudolph Grotto and Wonder Cave
Rudolph Grotto and its Wonder Cave were built by Father Philip Wagner and his young assistant Edmund Rybicki. They began the project in 1928, and it finally ended in 1983 when Edmund retired, saying he was too worn out to continue.
Father Wagner arrived in Rudolph in 1917, instructed by his bishop to build a new Catholic school and church. The school was built promptly; the church was not. Worship services were held in the school basement for decades, because Father Wagner had another project in mind.
According to the story he liked to tell, Wagner was studying for the priesthood in 1912 when he became sick. He visited the shrine at Lourdes, France, and promised Mary that if she could use her influence to heal him, he would use his energy to build her a new shrine. Wagner recovered, and when he arrived in Rudolph he saw that the small rural town had the raw material, land, and freedom from supervision he needed to fulfill his vow.
Father Wagner began by planting trees and piling up rocks. Then he recruited Edmund -- who was only 12 -- from one of the school's classes, and the work really kicked in. It eventually grew into a full-scale construction project that hauled giant logs and huge boulders from neighboring farms, transforming what had been a flat, treeless potato field into a 7.5-acre mini-Eden. The Grotto became a tourist spot with a well-stocked gift shop, Catholic shrines, and secular attractions such as a Wishing Well, War Memorial, and "Wisconsin in Miniature."
That wasn't enough for Father Wagner. In 1935 he and Edmund began work on their masterpiece: Wonder Cave. It took 20 years to complete.
A newspaper article displayed in the Grotto's small museum quotes Father Wagner's unhappy bishop in 1949: "I am constantly getting complaints from the poor people of your parish who are suffering in that miserable basement church after all these years while the most elaborate developments are going on in this series of caves which to me are perfectly nonsensical."
Wonder Cave is riddled with nearly a quarter-mile of passageways, winding through a 45-foot-high mound of earth and rocks -- thousands of tons of rocks -- that had to be piled and cemented in place by Edmund and Father Wagner's basement-bound parishioners. There was no blueprint. Neither Father Wagner nor Edmund had ever seen the inside of a real cave. "We just imagined it," said Edmund in a 1979 interview. Masons inspected Wonder Cave and were baffled by how it was held together. "It just stays there," was Edmund's explanation.
Before you enter Wonder Cave you pay a small fee at the gift shop, and are warned away if you're not physically fit. Wonder Cave is not for the aged or infirm. It's a labyrinthine warren with multiple levels, cramped passages, and rocks jutting from low ceilings that can crack your skull. Kinda like a real cave -- except for Father Wagner and Edmund's many embellishments.
Christian muzak fills the cave as you make your way past 26 Catholic shrines. Colored lights are everywhere: green, blue, red, yellow, purple. Even the rocks are painted in colors, which Edmund would dust with mica to make the walls and ceilings sparkle. Edmund also painstakingly punched tiny holes in dozens of metal plaques to outline Christian symbols, proverbs, devotional images, and virtues -- then lit them from behind with more colored lights.
Despite appearances, everything in Wonder Cave is above ground, built inside the immense mound of rocks piled on the potato field all those years ago. When you reach its center, a cavernous, skyless chamber with Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, you look up at the roof of rocks and hope that this isn't the day that gravity defeats Wonder Cave, burying the devout and casually curious together in the world's oddest tomb.
Father Wagner (1882-1959) and Edmund (1916-1991) are already permanent residents of the Grotto, buried in its adjacent cemetery. Edmund designed his mentor's gravestone and its paraphrased biblical inscription, which was approved by Father Wagner in his final days: "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord... let them rest from their labors."
Energy well spent, gentlemen.