Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, Alabama

"Jerusalem in Miniature"

When I first stumbled upon the Ave Maria Grotto, a vast collection of miniature religious sculptures in Cullman, Alabama, I almost dismissed it as mere Southern kitsch. The "Jerusalem in Miniature," however, deserves a closer look. So if you’re driving down I-65 on a Sunday afternoon, take an hour to enjoy this thoughtful and contemplative collection.

Created by Brother Joseph Zoetl, a monk at the Benedictine St. Bernard Abbey, the Ave Maria Grotto (literally, Hail Mary Cave) consists of a landscaped hillside of 125 small stone and cement structures. Zoetl, originally from Bavaria, Germany, spent more than 45 years fashioning miniature versions of Spanish missions, German castles, South African shrines, and even a Statue of Liberty.

Humility and Hubris

Although this historic site is best known for an impressive shrine to Mary, my two personal favorites are the Tower of Thanks and the Tower of Babel. They stand near the beginning and near the end of the path through the hillside, respectively, and provide an interesting juxtaposition on your journey.

The biblical story of the Tower of Babel, of course, recounts the attempt of humans to build a tower to the heavens. To punish humans’ hubris, the biblical God confused their language and scattered them across the Earth.

The Tower of Thanks, on the other hand, makes an incredible subtle statement of humility. Zoetl built it in gratitude for all of the support he received throughout years of building his sculptures.

No matter your degree of spirituality or secularity, in an age when all things can be (and often are) miniaturized, there’s still something profoundly meaningful in Zoetl’s work.


  1. Kat

    The Grotto is amazing. The first time a friend took me there, I didn’t expect to be as impressed as I was. It’s not on the National Register of Historic Places for nothing. It is well worth the trip.
    Brother Joseph made all those buildings with only postcards to guide him. It is fun to discover things he used in constructing the buildings, like bits of cold cream jars, seashells.
    Be sure to eat at the All Steak in Cullman, which is not all steak but the steaks are great. Ditto the orange rolls.
    Also, if you call in advance, you can find out which days to visit so that you can buy bread from the monks, even have them reserve you some. There is a gift shop where you enter the Grotto, with nice things and great kitsch, too, and the monks run it and sell bread and candles they make.

    September 21, 2008 at 10:47 pm
  2. Dan Schumacher

    I heard about the Ave Maria Grotto this past fall and can’t wait to get out there. It’s good to hear that it’s not just kitsch (I’d heard some unflattering rumors about bottle cap mosaics). Ave Maria Grotto and Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ sounds like a pretty awesome day.

    May 22, 2008 at 11:19 am

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