Ave Maria Grotto

I’m not a very religious person, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy visiting places with religious significance. Like St. Peter’s Basilica, Notre Dame Cathedral, Vatican City, the Polish cathedral in Cleveland, and the monastery housing cloistered nuns in Hanceville, Alabama.


What if I told you you could see many of the world’s religious monuments all in one place? On a hillside trail in Cullman, Alabama where sites such as Little Jerusalem, Alamo Mission in San Antonio, Tower of Babel, and the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes were lovingly made with scraps of tile, buttons, shells, and marbles.

Ave Maria Grotto is one man’s shrine to the religious wonders of the world. Brother Joseph Zoettl, a Benedictine monk, was once tasked with stoking the coal in the basement of the monastery. The nature of his work meant that there were hours that the fires burned and he had nothing to do while he waited to stoke the fire again. It was during these times that he began building structures in his spare time. After the monastery sold about 5,000 small grottoes that he’s carved, he was tasked with creating a large grotto park containing historic buildings and shrines of the world. He made miniature replicas of simple Holy Land structures, and soon had enough for an outdoor village he called “Little Jerusalem.”


Brother Joseph, a hunchback from Bavaria worked for over 40 years, using materials sent from all over the world. He made miniature replicas of simple Holy Land structures, and soon had enough for an outdoor village he called “Little Jerusalem.” He completed his last creation, the Basilica in Lourdes, at the age of 80, in 1958. Now, 125 miniature religious sculptures are housed on a beautiful pathway within an old rock quarry.

It was not at all what I expected. There is one winding path past all these rock creations. It only took 20 minutes or so to walk past them all, but it would take hours to appreciate all the minute details lovingly crafted on each display. If it hadn’t been raining on my visit, I could have spent a half day admiring all the attention to detail. For $5.00 admission, you’ll be awed by what one man built.

KODAK Digital Still Camera

I took more pictures than I could ever post here. There was so much to look at. I’ve seen many of these religious meccas in person. They are impressive in their original form in various parts of the Europe and the Middle East. But Brother Joseph’s imagination inspired a whole new view of these sacred shrines.

I was awed with each new creation. Even wandering through a soft drizzle, it was amazing to see all the lovingly-detailed work that went into these creations. It’s inspiring to see what one man’s passion created. Something that most of the world will never see, but for those lucky few who make a stop in Cullman, Alabama and take an hour to explore the transformation of an old rock quarry into a religious shrine.

Where else can we see religious art?


15 responses to “Ave Maria Grotto

  1. This past spring we went to Shield’s Date Garden in Coachella. Their date shakes were AMAZING but they also had 28 separate installation pieces of Jesus’ life as part of their date garden trail. It was a fitting way to spend Easter.

  2. Oh how fascinating! Great to see all the architectural detail of these in incredibke structures all in one place, albeit in miniature. What a life’s work. Impressive!


  3. Very cool that there’s a religious one stop shop in Alabama. I’m not a religious person either but I would love to see Brother Joseph’s work in action. He did such an incredible job!

  4. Wow I’m amazed by the work one man could make! I wonder how long it took him to carve those 125 miniature religious sculptures!

  5. This is really wonderful! I love that it encompasses different shrines from around the world. It’s unbelievable that one man did all this!

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