In Partnership with the Southern Weekend

Ave Maria Grotto: A World in Miniature

This place is truly one of a kind!

Located in Cullman, AL, on the grounds of St. Bernard Abbey, Ave Maria Grotto is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It features 125 miniature replicas of famous buildings and religious shrines from around the word.

And it’s the long lasting legacy of one man’s life work.

Brother Joseph Zoettl was born in Germany in 1878. And in 1892, he made his way to the newly founded St. Bernard Abbey in Alabama to become a monk. After some years, Bro. Joseph found himself in charge of the powerhouse, shoveling coal into furnaces for 17 hours a day, seven days a week. To pass the time, he began the work that he would be remembered for: he began constructing miniatures using discarded materials like broken glass and marbles.

He constructed these little buildings during the day and sat them outside for people to enjoy as they made their way across the abbey grounds. It didn’t take long for people to notice.

And soon, people from the community and surrounding areas were visiting to see Bro. Joseph’s work.

Due to popular demand, the Ave Maria Grotto opened in 1932. And despite his old age, Bro. Joseph continued to build his miniature replicas. Seeing as he was a shy man and not well-traveled, most of the miniatures he built are based off of postcards and photographs. Some are even based off his imagination using popular fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel as the inspiration.

Related: This cemetery is the only one of its kind in the world. 

The grotto, which is Italian for cave, is perhaps the most famous structure on the grounds. It stands 27 feet high, 27 feet wide and 27 feet deep and is absolutely breathtaking to witness in person. In fact, you’ll get that feeling a lot as you walk around the grounds.

Brother Joseph died in 1961. He was 80 years old. And today, an almost life-size bronze statue of him overlooks his life’s work. Every year, people from across the world come to visit the Ave Maria Grotto to see this famous world in miniature. And hopefully, guests leave realizing that no matter how small or insignificant an action may seem, it can leave behind a lasting legacy for years to come.