Road Trip: Ave Maria Grotto (Cullman, Alabama)

When people usually juxtapose Catholicism and Alabama, EWTN or Our Lady of Angels Monastery are probably the first places to come to mind. After all, who doesn’t, Catholic or otherwise, have a recollection of the first time they, channel surfing through the muck, came across Mother Angelica, in awe of her frankness and fidelity. While I can attest that such establishments are certainly very worthy trips in and of themselves, Matt and I were also blown away by yet another Catholic center in Alabama.

Driving north from Gulf Shores on the first leg of our journey back to Cincinnati, Matt and I made a stop in Georgiana, Alabama to visit The Childhood Home of Hank Williams, as well as our very first visit to Our Lady of Angels Monastery in Hanceville, Alabama. Because we were pretty tired by this point in the drive, we entered the adoration chapel for some silent prayer, visited the crypt, walked around the perimeter of the piazza, and bought our Mother Angelica with a statue of El Nino magnet in a relatively short amount of time before heading off to what would be our resting stop for the night, St. Bernard Abbey. One important note for pilgrims to Our Lady of Angels Monastery, as well as to St. Bernard Abbey, is that visitors from Catholic centers, such as Cincinnati, will be struck by the fact that there are virtually zero Catholic churches along the nine mile drive between the two Catholic monasteries, although there are a few homemade signs publicly proclaiming prayers for Mother and her Sisters.

St. Bernard Abbey is a home to Benedictine monks, a Catholic High School run by the monks (which does provide boarding), a Guest/Retreat House, a candle-making facility, and The Ave Maria Grotto. The monks, who have made Alabama their home since the 1870’s, provided us simple and adequate accommodations in the abbey, as well as meals with readings from Pope Benedict’s recent visit to the US in the refectory. We found this particular abbey to appear to be an austere and happy place, and would certainly recommend any pilgrims finding themselves in Alabama to give the monks a call if they are in need of lodging and food for a night or two. Traveler’s tip: There are not a plethora of ATMs in the area, so don’t forget to carry some cash for a nice tithe to the Abbey.

Certainly one of the highlights of the Abbey, The Ave Maria Grotto is an amazing array of little shrines created by Brother Joseph Zoettl on the Abbey grounds, starting during the Depression. His religious folk art, as well as representations of folk tales from his German youth, are startling in their number, detail, and construction. While Brother Joseph did have construction pieces donated to him as his notoriety grew, his works were largely created out of found materials, such as marbles the nuns at the local school had confiscated from students, broken flashlights, and the like. Not unlike Look Out Mountain’s famed Rock City in its use of rock pieces and general grotto formation, as well as its early 1930’s birth, Ave Maria Grotto goes beyond the campiness of Rock City toward being a true representation of folk piety (although I have started dreaming of starting a “See Ave Maria Grotto” ad campaign on barns across America…). Its creator, Brother Joseph, was a lowly lay brother in the order, whose not-so-glamorous job was shoveling coal for the Abbey powerplant. Without training in fine arts, and working in his spare time, Brother Joseph created bucolic Bavarian scenes, devotions to the Foster Father of Jesus, and… chipmunk crossings. According to Brother David, a current Benedictine monk of St. Bernard, the humble Brother Joseph and the growing interest which radiated toward his works helped to raise respect for the lay brothers in the community, as well as create interest in the Abbey.

Miles from Cincinnati, Ohio to Cullman, Alabama: 422.79
Rating (out of 5): 5

Colleen Swaim


5 responses to “Road Trip: Ave Maria Grotto (Cullman, Alabama)

  1. I’m might have to check that out on an upcoming vacation.

  2. You said you didn’t see any Catholic churches between the two monasteries but apparently you missed the huge old Catholic church in Cullman and the equally large Sacred Heart Monastery (Benedictine sisters.) This area was settled by German Catholics. At one time, Sacred Heart had a girls’ boarding school while St. Bernard had the boys’. St. Bernard is now coed. Sacred Heart hosts retreats now and I have enjoyed going there. I am not sure if they just rent out rooms as the Abbey does but they may do so.

    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 the Grotto 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. There are some interesting shops in Cullman, too.

  3. I am an artist in australia and looking forwaod to hearing from people that could be related to me so we can trace our Art Heritage

  4. William Hopkins

    The Ave Maria Grotto surprised me in that it is much more than I expected. Brother Joesph was
    skillful and his devotion is manifest. The Spririt of Presence is there. The people are very nice. Not guarded and standoffish but genuine. This site is a real gem.

  5. We absolutely loved it! Very unique artwork and so true to scale. You’ll be impressed as we were. And Cullman is such a pretty area of the state, in the mountaineous region. So you have some very pretty areas to visit, in addition to the grotto.

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