Philippa and I went to the Blooming Festival at St. Bernard Abbey last April. It’s like a craft show. On the way down to Cullman, Philippa said if I wanted to we could visit the Ave Maria Grotto.
I’ve heard about it and have seen signs for it for years on I-65 but for some reason, I had no idea it was in Cullman, nor at St. Bernard! I go to Cullman regularly and had been to St. Bernard for track meets and soccer.
How did I not know?
Why haven’t I been?
What is a grotto?
It is any type of natural or artificial cave that is associated with modern, historic, or prehistoric use by humans. In modern times, many people purchase artificial grottos for ornamental and devotional purposes when it comes to placing statues of saints, particularly the Blessed Virgin, in outdoor gardens.
So the Ave Maria Grotto is known throughout the world as “Jerusalem in Miniature,” and built on a four-acre wooded park by the St. Bernard Abbey and was built by a little monk from Bavaria named Joseph.
Joseph’s path to constructing this grotto began when in January of 1892, Father Gamelbert Brunner went to Europe looking for candidates for St. Bernard Abbey and young,then called Michael, joined up, He worked in the powerhouse at the Bernard College. To help pass time he started working with cement and made a little church and soon other building that were to become little Jerusalem. It got the attention of visiting priests,
“One day Father Dominic (Downs) came to me with some little statues and to see if I could make small grottoes. He had a store in front of the college and sold religious articles to help missions. When I had made two grottoes I thought that would be all but as Father Dominic sold them right away, he always brought more statues and it became a regular business.”
Joseph ended up making some 5,000 grottos.
In 1932 he decided to build a large grotto for visitors.
In contemplating the Main Grotto, which was to be the centerpiece of the whole park, Br. Joseph had yet to decide on the type of building materials he would employ and where they would come from. A partial solution was handed to him on April 29, 1933, when there was a derailment of the L&N railroad about twenty miles away near Vinemont, Alabama. One freight car full of marble from the Gantt Quarry, Sylacauga, Alabama overturned and the marble was crushed. It was useless to the owner so he gave it to Saint Bernard. The monks went up and carted it down to Saint Bernard; it was exactly what Brother Joseph needed as the main stalactites to hang in the Great Grotto.
The grotto was dedicated on May 17, 1934. For the next 20 years, he continued adding on to the grotto by building miniature reproductions of some of the most famous religious historical buildings and locations in the world. He received donated materials from every state in the USA and many countries from marbles, shells, cold cream jars to colored glass, broken tile and costume jewelry.
There are 125 structures. He built his last model, the Basilica in Lourdes, at the age of 80, in 1958.
Open daily 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. A very modest cost to enter.
Closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day
1600 St. Bernard Drive SE
Cullman, AL 35055
It’s a very unique place to visit especially in the spring when the azaleas start to bloom. It’s so creative and unusual, if not a bit tacky, but that adds to the charm. I hope even if you have been to go again when the flowers are blooming. It’s a treat.