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Pilgrimage to Cullman County

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Pilgrimage to Cullman County
By Rochelle Caviness - July 29, 2002

Cullman County is located in North Alabama and is home to a host of attractions ranging from covered bridges to Looney's Entertainment Park. At Looney's you can attend an outdoor production of a civil war drama, take a scenic lake cruise, or play miniature golf. Cullman is also home to, perhaps, the only dry (i.e., alcohol free) Oktoberfest in the world, as well as numerous other festivals and events.

While Cullman offers visitors a wealth of shopping, recreational, and educational venues, it is quickly becoming well known as a Catholic pilgrimage destination...

Cullman County is incorporated into the Diocese of Birmingham, which is comprised of the thirty-nine northern most counties in Alabama. There are more than 90,000 Catholics living in the Diocese of Birmingham, however this figure represents only 3% of the population of the counties covered by the diocese. The County is located almost at the very center of the area covered by the Diocese, and it is becoming a major tourist destination for Catholics, and non-Catholics alike, who come to Cullman to visit some of its unique "Catholic" attractions. In particular, visitors from around the world flock to Cullman to visit the Ave Maria Grotto and the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

There are four Catholic monasteries located in the County of Cullman: Ave Maria Grotto

Also known as Little Jerusalem, the Ave Maria Grotto is located on the grounds of St. Bernard Abbey. The Abbey is situated about a mile from the town of Cullman, and is an ideal destination for anyone seeking the unusual. In addition to several formal grottos, the area is also filled with miniature replicas of famous buildings and shrines from around the world. The majority of the structures feature biblical scenes, such as Noah's Ark, and buildings associated with the Holy Land.

The Ave Maria Grotto is the work of Brother Joseph Zoettle, a Benedictine monk. Over 125 miniatures are displayed in a relaxed, park like setting. All the scenes and miniatures found in the Grotto are the work of Brother Joseph. The only exceptions are three scenes that were added to the Grotto by Leo Swagger, after Brother Joseph died.

Brother Joseph was born in Bavaria in 1878, and he initially came to the abbey as a student in 1892. After becoming a monk he worked in a number of locations before returning to the abbey. By chance he discovered that he had a knack for building small grottos. Initially, these scenes were sold at the abbey's gift shop. However, in 1910, Brother Joseph began to build larger, miniature replicas of various scenes and buildings. Many of these works were derived from his imagination, others from postcards and pictures he chanced to look upon.

Brother Joseph was a folk artist who worked with items that he had on hand. He also used a variety of tidbits given to him by admiring fans of his work, including cold cream jars and sea shells. According to Monroe Sears, who helped Brother Joseph set up some of his later works, " Brother Joseph was a quiet, shy man who was well liked, and well respected by his fellow Brothers." Brother Joseph died in 1958 and was buried a short distance away from the current location of the Grotto.

Tours of the Grotto are self-guided. The replicas are set up along a looped trail that meanders down into a small valley where the main Grotto is situated. It then meanders back up toward the gift shop where the tour started. While most of the replicas are displayed 'out-of-reach', a few are set up so that they are touchable.

Cullman County

To learn more about Cullman County, and its many attractions, restaurants, and lodging options, contact the Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-313-5114. Back to top

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