Ave Maria Grotto

Ave Maria Grotto


Alabama is famous for a four-acre miniature city named Ava Maria, which was built by a hunchback monk.


share Share

Brother Joseph (formerly Michael Zoettl) was a Benedictine monk born in Bavaria, who spent decades turning cement and junk into a miniature city in Alabama. He was a little guy, less than five feet tall and under 100 pounds. At an early age, he was injured in an accident that left him slightly hunchbacked but luckily didn't hurt his ability to bend over and build tiny things.

In 1911 he was put in charge of the powerhouse at Alabama's Saint Bernard Abbey. He spent 17 hours a day, 7 days a week, pumping oil and watching gauges. It was lonely, mind-numbing work, even for a monk. So to pass the time, Brother Joseph built little rock grottoes around tiny religious statues. His superiors at the Abbey noticed, and began selling the grottos in the gift shop. Brother Joseph later said that he made over 5,000 of them before he quit counting.

He also made miniature replicas of simple Holy Land structures, and soon had enough for an outdoor village he called "Little Jerusalem." Again his superiors noticed, and again they had bigger ideas. "I told Abbot Bernard I was getting old and could hardly do much any more," Brother Joseph recalled in the official Ave Maria Grotto guidebook. "But he would not listen. So I started work and had plenty to do."

The project this time was the Ave Maria Grotto, begun in 1932 in a four-acre abandoned quarry on the Abbey grounds. Brother Joseph, despite his acknowledged age and fatigue, would eventually fill it with tons of decorative rock and around 150 elaborate structures. The Grotto is not some holy shrine that got out of control. From the start, it was conceived as an over-the-top public attraction.

Brother Joseph was shy and could not travel, so he designed his buildings mostly from pictures on tourist postcards (We were once given a rare glimpse of his well-worn postcard scrapbooks). Sometimes all he had was a front view, so those buildings resemble false-front saloons in a Wild West town. He worked on his little buildings in the powerhouse during the day, then set them in the Grotto in the evening or early morning, so he wouldn't have to interact with people.

Using only basic hand tools, Brother Joseph would shape cement into a replica building, then give it some zing with marbles, seashells, cracked dinner plates, or bicycle reflectors. Tiny-but-majestic domes were fashioned from old birdcages and toilet tank floats. Biblical sights and Roman Catholic buildings came first, the Tower of Babel, St. Peter's in Rome, but Brother Joseph later added secular curiosities such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa and even the Mysterious Viking Tower of Rhode Island, which, according to an accompanying sign in the Grotto, was built by wayward 14th century Irish missionaries.


Dying Illegal

Contrary to popular beliefs, it is not illegal to die in the town of Longyearbyen, Norway.

Read More
No 'B' Until Billion

If you were to write out every number (one, two, three, etc.), you wouldn't use the letter "b" until you reached one billion.

Read More
Star Sailor

The term "Astronaut" comes from Greek words that mean "Star" and "Sailor".

Read More
Einstein Turned Down Israel Presidency

Albert Einstein was offered a presidential seat in Israel. He declined.

Read More