USA: The Ave Maria Grotto
in Cullman, AL

A Catholic answer to Disney’s ‘It’s a Small World’, minus the annoying music. Who wouldn’t enjoy that?

Why visit?
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? 
What started off as a hobby turned into a life-long project, and a minor tourist attraction in its own right. Brother Joseph’s works found a place in the abbey’s garden, centered on a grotto that, like a faux Lourdes, contains a statue of the Virgin Mary, admiring the patchwork of crushed glass, rubble and broken plates around her. 
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?
Joseph, being the good Catholic he was, took his inspiration from Christian crowdpleasers around the world. A whole section is dedicated to Rome, including St Peter’s (its cupola made from a bird cage), the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Catacombs where Rome’s Christians were buried. In an early nod to the tourist industry’s must-see icons, he also included the leaning tower of Pisa. 
St Peter's replete with Michelangelo's bird cage, I mean, cupola. 
Build it and they will come...
Another section is devoted to the Holy Land, including the Bethlehem cave, the crucification scene and the empty resurrection cave below Calvary where Jesus went walkabout three days after his burial.     
Christ redeeming the Holy Land
Marine craftsmanship. 
Tipping is expected in the US- even at a holy shrine. 
A smattering of ‘best-of-Catholicism’ from around the globe completes the collection, including the church of Our Lady of Guadaloupe (a sly nod to the growing Hispanic tourist dollar), the Lourdes shrine, mission churches from around the US, and a surprisingly touching US flag with miniature graveyard commemorating the boys from St Bernard killed in the Korean War. 
Who said monks don't have a sense of humour?
St Bernard’s is still a functioning monastery. The Ave Maria Grotto provides a steady stream of income to support the community. 
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. 
Bumper sales. 
A short distance away is the Abbey’s graveyard, a simple and peaceful affair where a small church stands guard over to the graves of former residents, including Brother Joseph himself, who died in 1961. 

Getting there:
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. 

Useful links:
Ave Maria Grotto official website. 
St Bernard’s Abbey website.


  1. I am from Cullman. I remember going to the Grotto around the time of my baptism and first communion at the age of 15 (I was a convert). The priest who showed me around picked a rose for me. It had snowed and roses were peeking up from beneath a layer of white carpeting. I shall never forget that. I live in Texas now, but dream of returning home someday to show off my hometown to my husband. Sherry Woody Montemayor

    1. Thanks for sharing that memory, Sherry!
      I'm hope you get to return for a visit soon.


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