The Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, in the state of Alabama, the United States, is home to a unique collection of miniature replicas of some of the most famous religious shrines and buildings of the world. It is located on the grounds of Saint Bernard Abbey, the state's only Benedictine monastery, and was built by Brother Joseph Zoettl over a period of 50 years, using discarded building supplies such as bricks, marbles, tiles, and cement, and decorating them with a variety of everyday items such as cold-cream jars, jewelry, and even toilet seats. The park occupies an area of 4 acres and contains 125 miniature reproductions.
Joseph Zoettel was born in Bavaria in 1878. He immigrated to the United States as a teenager, and began studying at the newly founded Benedictine monastery of St. Bernard, where he took his vows in 1897. Brother Joseph was not allowed to be ordained as a priest, due to the rule of the period that stated any man with a distracting disability could not be ordained a priest. Brother Joseph had been in an accident that left him slightly hunched. So he ran the monastery’s power plant and was, even by a monk's standards, a withdrawn, quiet man.
Brother Joseph started building models in 1918, using materials left over from construction of the monastery's buildings. At first, Zoettel placed his structures in the monastery's outdoor recreation area. When the miniatures began attracting too many visitors, the monks moved the popular creations to the nearby limestone quarry where the blocks for Saint Bernard Abbey's buildings were hewn. The site was officially named the Ave Maria Grotto in 1934.
The entire hillside is strutted with Roman Catholic cathedrals and monasteries including St. Peter's Basilica, the Monte Cassino Abbey and the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. There are also a number of secular buildings and the occasional pagan temple, including the Alamo Mission in San Antonio, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Spanish missions, German castles, South African shrines, and even the St. Bernard Abbey power station, where the monk worked shoveling coal. There are also mythological and biblical structures like Noah's Ark and the Tower of Babel, and some purely imaginary ones such as the Hansel and Gretel's Temple of the Fairies. He built his last model, the Basilica in Lourdes, at the age of 80, in 1958.
Of the buildings he recreated, the only ones he ever actually saw were the ones of the Abbey and from his hometown of Landshut, Bavaria. Brother Joseph rarely left Alabama. The models he constructed were based on old photographs, often postcards, that showed only one-sided view of the structures. This is why the scale of edifices is often wrong with towers and buttresses too large or small.
The Ave Maria Grotto is listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage and also on the National Register of Historic Places. The site is now a major tourist attraction.
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