A Catholic answer to Disney’s ‘It’s a Small World’, minus the annoying music. Who wouldn’t enjoy that?
Because what else is there to do in Alabama?
Seriously though, the Ave Maria Grotto is a delightful collection of miniature buildings that is the amazing lifetime achievement of a single man.
It is a great way to get a quick overview of some of the Major Sights of the Christian world in a handy package, and to whet your appetite for future trips and travels.
It is also a fantastic practical demonstration of the power of recycling and kids will love the arts & crafts approach to re-using shells and marbles.
In the town of Cullman, in Northern Alabama, about an hour north of Birmingham. Map.
MOST PEOPLE WOULD struggle to come up with any major sight in the southern state of Alabama. I know I would. Somehow all the good stuff ended up in the rest of the South.
Alabama’s reputation as a rural bible-belt state is well deserved, with Baptist churches easily outnumbering McDonald’s outlets. However, remarkably, in an area that seems to deal in a large variety of protestant sects (Baptists, Methodists, Evangelists, and several groups that think nothing of speaking in tongues) the town of Cullman is home to a Catholic abbey that is still a working monastery, housing a community of monks. They have been here since 1891 when St Bernard’s was founded by a group of Bavarian Benedictines.
Brother Joseph Zoetl was born in Landshut, Bavaria and entered the priesthood here in 1892 at the tender age of 14 (an act of either remarkable youthful devotion or cruel punishment by his family- a teenage German-speaking boy travelling alone to a secluded community in a largely Anglophone country).
These being the days before cable TV and unlimited distraction from the Internet, boredom was a serious occupational hazard for monks (or a divine test, depending on your religious point of view.) But Brother Joseph rose to the occasion and when he was not busy shovelling coal into furnaces (he ran the abbey’s powerhouse) he constructed miniature buildings using concrete as well as discarded materials like broken plates, beads, marbles, seashells and cold cream jars (presumably donated- or perhaps Brother Joseph had excessively dry skin given that one construction alone contains about ten of them…)
|Bro, have you seen my marbles?|
|The Grotto itself. To the left, Rome, to the right, the Holy Land. All around you: rubble, shells and shards.|
|It's a small, small world- perhaps this is where Disney got his idea?|
|St Peter's replete with Michelangelo's bird cage, I mean, cupola.|
|Build it and they will come...|
|Tipping is expected in the US- even at a holy shrine.|
|Who said monks don't have a sense of humour?|
An you can support them even further by doing some early Christmas shopping at the souvenir shop, which has an excellent collection of religion-inspired comics, silver rosaries, as well as (hey, this is America after all) some righteous bumper stickers.
Well what did you expect? In the good ol’ US of A, a car is essential to get around, and the Grotto is no exception. The Grotto is well-signposted and is situated just within Cullman city limits.
Ave Maria Grotto official website.St Bernard’s Abbey website.