Ave Maria Grotto

A First Hand Account by Rod Bennett

Someday you may find yourself at Ave Maria Grotto.

It's just east of Cullman, Alabama on Hwy. 278, about 50 miles north of Birmingham. The billboards (cryptically referring to it as "Little Jerusalem") can be seen on roadsides all across the South. Of the millions who've seen these signs, thousands of us (okay, hundreds) decided that we really did owe it to ourselves to find out what "Little Jerusalem" is doing in North Alabama and actually made the pilgrimage. When you join us - when you reach Ave Maria Grotto and you stand there goggling at it under the piney woods - you'll be glad you read this article. You'll probably laugh a lot when you get to "Little Jerusalem". You may conclude after close examination that the entire four acres fell to earth on a meteor from another planet. But if you hadn't come across this issue of WONDER I think you might have missed the most curious and the most wonderful thing about Ave Maria Grotto. I'm here to see that you don't.

If you happen to be a really seasoned patron of that obscure but delightful corner of the American experience called the Roadside Tourist Attraction, you will begin your journey into "Little Jerusalem" by stopping in the ubiquitous "snow-globes & big pencils" gift shop and purchasing the official four-color circa-1960 guidebook entitled Sermons in Stone. This marvelously corny publication (which has defied every known law of entropy by reaching 1992 with every gushing word and every photo of admiring women in Jackie Kennedy hairdos intact) promises a treasure trove of wonders within: "... a panorama of beauty... reproductions of European wayside shrines and miniature replicas of famous buildings and churches placed beside the wooded path which winds its way through this flower bedecked park... a cave, roofed and covered with artificial stalactites..." It all sounds like heaven on earth to anyone who grew up begging Dad to pull that big Roadmaster wagon off the highway for an hour or two at Rock City or Santa Claus Land.

If you still have any money left after your visit to that gift shop (with its "Little Jerusalem" Viewmaster reels, etc.) you will probably want to look up from Sermons in Stone long enough to purchase your ticket. Somebody's grandmother - a smiling gray lady behind the ticket counter who calls you "Sugar" - points you at the entrance portal and encourages you to go right ahead and take as many pictures as you want to; the implication, of course, being that Ave Maria Grotto is so impressive that once you lay eyes on it you will be compelled, like the throngs who have gone before you, to pull out your camera and make like a Voyager spacecraft on a Jupiter fly-by. That's perfectly normal, she seems to be saying, and nothing to be ashamed of. Likewise, the freckle-faced teenager who takes your ticket at the door assures you that you can take all the time you need - it's a (with a pleasant Alabama twang) "self-guided tour". And he's pleased to see you have your copy of Sermons in Stone in case you have any questions. If you're anything like me, you will have plenty - but the guidebook only makes it worse.

As you step out into Ave Maria Grotto... well, I'll let the guidebook tell it. "As the visitor catches sight of the entire layout of the park... the immensity of the undertaking is realized. The visitor is enthralled by the beauty unfolding before his eyes... It is a feeling, shared by countless thousands, that no words - however accurate and beautiful - could convey."

Strangely enough, what the authors of the booklet seem to have missed somehow is the thing that stare most people in the face as the first and most obvious fact about Ave Maria Grotto. As a matter of fact, most modern tourists find that one very accurate word does suffice to express their feelings about the spectacle unfolding before their eyes... and that word is TACKY; they find "Little Jerusalem astonishingly and stupefyingly tacky - the concrete equivalent of a 900-foot Jesus, the world's largest plastic 3D portrait of the Virgin Mary with all the pink candles blazing.

Now let me say that I'm not entirely immune to this viewpoint. "Little Jerusalem" does turn out to be a great big garden full of tinkered-together miniature scenes out of Bible stories and memorials to saints most people never heard of, made out of odd bits of junk and pieces of broken pop bottles. Over here, a six-foot "Tower of Babel" stands next to a replica of Noah's Ark covered with ceramic dime store farm animals. Over there, a figure of St. Scholastica stands on a pedestal made largely from empty blue cold cream jars. Let me admit from the start that the place is one-of-a-kind to say the least and I certainly won't begrudge anyone the simple pleasure of laughing good and hard for a while over finding anything so weird and unlikely out here in the woods. But unless you're very, very dense or very hip and sophisticated it will probably occur to you to stop chuckling long enough to wonder who could have have put up such a thing... and why. And here's where I think this little article might be of some help. If you're clever enough to go beyond that initial shock of discovering that there certainly are people who think and act very differently than you do (a point at which laughter is perfectly legitimate, by the way), then discovering Ave Maria Grotto can be like discovering a lost civilization. It's a good rule to remember that most people who act strange have something very interesting on their minds. If you're curious enough about what that something is - if you really want to know how this weird outcropping of psychedelic piety came to be poking out of the stony southern highlands - then I've found that you can spend a very entertaining afternoon walking through "Little Jerusalem" like a detective looking clues at the scene of a crime... and you can piece together quite a story to take to the folks back home.

Let's go ahead and start walking down Ave Maria Grotto's "flower bedecked" trial. Up ahead is your first monument - a sort of free-form obelisk made out of concrete, bleached coral, and those green glass balls fishermen once used to keep their nets aflost. It looks like one of the Watts Towers or maybe like a signpost for UFO traffic. Saying just what it is supposed to be would present quite a problem if it weren't for the carefully lettered little plaque posted under it. By the way, a cardinal rule to remember at all Roadside Wonders is to always read the signs; the signs are the window into the soul of your host. This one says, "This was Brother Joseph's first monument..." and then goes on to tell us about said Brother Joseph.

Joseph Zoettl was a Benedictine monk who came to America from Bavaria in 1892 and was assigned to St. Bernard Abbey near Cullman in what was then very rural Alabama. It was here that he developed a hobby of building miniature shrines in his spare time. "Brother Joseph first erected the miniatures on the monastery recreation grounds. Because so many of the replicas he made were of famous sites in the Holy Land the numerous visitors who began to flock to the Abbey named it Little Jerusalem." You see, there's one of our questions answered already. Let's read on.

"Numerous friends of St. Bernard began to send in statuary around which Brother Joseph would wield his magic in cement, stone, marbles, tiles, shells, rocks, chandelier prisms, and beads. These little items - many sent from all over the world - have been worked together to form the various shrines and replicas which number about one hundred and fifty."

These hundred and fifty shrines are undeniably impressive. Here are very detailed little re-creations of everything from St. Peter's Basilica in Rome to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Alamo, San Juan Capistrano, the Tomb of Lazarus, the Parthenon, the Pantheon, and the Temple of Jerusalem... they're all here for your perusal and lots of other important places you knew nothing about until you saw them here. But the most illuminating and even unsettling thing erected in these gardens turns out to be those little placards - the legends that are meant to tell you what you're looking at.

There are dozens and dozens of these signs and someone really seems to have thought that you would want to read them all. Never mind that actually doing this - actually taking the time to carefully note what year Pope Julius II commissioned the Sistine Chapel, for example - would be a lesson in world civilization that would have you standing out here in the woods till the cows come home. Never mind; the authors of these placards seem to have unlimited faith in your interest and good will. As a matter of fact, the creator and keepers of Ave Maria Grotto are blissfully unaware that you have been laughing at them and might be laughing still. Go as far down the trail as you like; these astonishing signs continue reverently along and the authors never suspect that anyone might possibly feel anything but admiration and humility standing before a shrine to the Immaculate Conception decorated with broken bathroom tiles and cat's eye marbles. And I guess that all this innocence starts to get to you after a while. Reading these signs you start to feel like a cad - like a deserter mistakenly getting a medal for bravery or a cheating husband whose wife goes around telling everyone that mutual trust holds their marriage together. You begin to realize that these people are paying you a compliment. They are treating you like a child. That is, they are expecting you to remember enough of your childhood to see their little plot of tacky miniatures as a child would see it: as a fabulous garden of wonderful toys - which it is. Guys, if you doubt me just think for a moment how great it would be to have a G.I. Joe adventure in here!

Brother Joe studded Ave Maria Grotto with ordinary marbles like they were just as beautiful as priceless gems - and, by golly, they are! That little monk thought blue glass jars from Woolworth's are pretty - and, come to think of it, he was right! When you learn to look at it in this way - with the eyes of a five-year-old - Ave Maria Grotto starts to look pretty doggone neat. The "tackiness" has gone right out of it. Anybody can see that this place is charming, sweet, and a whole lot of fun. And here's the main clue that solves our little detective mystery, the key that unlocks this strange and "tacky" little world. Looking at Brother Joe's "Little Jerusalem" like it was a fabulous and unexpected Christmas present under your tree, you start to become aware that seeing things as "tacky" comes from the need to look around at what other people are liking and then like the same things. But Brother Joseph, like a little child, obviously launched out and followed his heart. He was not sophisticated enough to realize that most people, no matter how hard he worked, would laugh at what he was doing. And you start to see that the wonder of Ave Maria Grotto is that this man cared about what he was doing even if nobody else did. His own innocence has erupted out into these Alabama woods and if we are listening at all it will humble us.

At the end of the trail, after you've seen all one hundred and fifty shrines, a glass case has some photos of the man himself. You see Brother Joe - a rather homely and (by the end of his life, at least) quite hunchbacked little fellow with big hands - dressed in a brown habit or sometimes in some old overalls. Some of the pictures show him wearing a happy grin as he pushes an old-fashioned wheelbarrow along the very trails upon which you are now standing. Looking at these, you start to get a real and very revealing glimpse of a quiet little man who labored the better part of an 83-year life on this Alabama hillside. He seems to have shovelled coal in the Abbey's basement when he wasn't rebuilding Monte Cassino, the Fortress Antonia, or the Circus Maximus. Looking at these pictures - seeing this diminutive monk's whole life on a few old squares of yellowing paper - you may start to wonder if he wasted his life here. After all, while he was shovelling his coal and working (all through the '30s, '40s, and '50s) on his castles and temples here in the dappled shade of "Little Jerusalem", free successful people in New York and Berlin were having affairs, getting divorced, completing stock mergers, and attending cocktail parties. As a matter of fact, I would say that we are faced with a choice here at "Little Jerusalem". I would venture to say that Brother Joe was either one of the stupidest people that ever lived - or one of the wisest. Come to Ave Maria Grotto and decide which.

At the conclusion of your journey through Ave Maria Grotto you will notice a rack of free brochures standing by the exit (a true devotee of Roadside Wonders will take as many of these as he or she can carry away). Your eyes scan the multi-colored tiers. RUBY FALLS. TWEETSIE RAILROAD. FIELDS OF THE WOOD. GRANDFATHER MOUNTAIN. CHRISTUS GARDENS. STORYBOOK LAND. And then you realize the truth. There are other places like Ave Maria Grotto. Lots of them, all over the place. Each of them with their own "Brother Josephs", their own particular way of confronting you with startling 1940s Mom & Pop innocence. And confronting really is the right word; each of these places is waiting to grab you by the shoulders and shake you until your teeth rattle - until you confess that yes, Horatio, there are more things in Roadside America than were dreamt of in my philosophy.

Well, until next time... Happy Motoring! W

This site has the web archives of Wonder from #13 to #16. Later issues are at http://www.wondersource.com.

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