Ave Maria Grotto, Brother Joseph Zoetl, O.S.B. Cullman, Alabama

Several years ago, when I was the curator of the contemporary museum here in Atlanta, my friends from Institute 193 guest-curated an exhibition of sculptures by Kambel Smith. Smith is a Philadelphia-based self-taught artist who works at the crossroads between sculpture, public space, and architecture by creating large-scale, intricately detailed cardboard sculptures of the world’s iconic buildings. At the time, we described his installation as a “metropolis in miniature.” Visitors would marvel at the attention to detail, especially after learning from the wall label that Smith had never been in person to any of the sites that inspired his creations, his only source of material being Google Images. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about vernacular architecture or, in this case, purely intuitive architecture. This has all been spurred on after a return visit to Saint Bernard Abbey, the first and only Benedictine monastery in Alabama. Nestled into the hillside behind the Abbey is one of the best art environments in the country, Ave Maria Grotto, which was the creation of Brother Joseph Zoetl, O.S.B. From iconic structures like the iconic Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome to The Massabielle Grotto in Lourdes, France, or the Missions of San Juan Capistrano, Carmel, and Santa Barbara, covering four acres, Brother Joseph created between 125 -150 miniature reproductions of famous religious structures from around the world. Taking together the tiny world is an awe-inspiring testament to one man’s devotion, creativity, and unwavering faith. 

Born in 1878 in Landshut, Bavaria, at 14, he met Father Gamelbert Brunner, O.S.B., who was recruiting candidates for the new Abbey established in Cullman, Alabama. In January 1892, a small group of recruits set sail on an old steamer named the Suaavia for a crossing that took seventeen days. With the growing school less than a year old, immediately, there was much to do. In his third year of school, there was an accident. A rope unexpectedly snapped while attempting to lift a heavy bell into the belfry. The shock and the shake were so severe that he had excruciating pain in his back and shoulders for the rest of his life. After years of wearing a hefty steel back brace, he developed kyphosis, an abnormal convex curvature of the spine. In crude terms, his hunchback prevented him from becoming a priest. He was welcome to remain on as a lay brother, which he did for six decades. 

Having “stayed on,” without the burden of his religious studies, he was free to pursue his hobbies. For the next 30 years, he took on the strenuous task of running the Abbey’s powerhouse. The steam boiler needed attention seventeen hours a day, providing a place to be and an outlet for his creative hobbies.

In 1918 his first works in concrete were born. Using simple tools such as hammers, pliers, brushes, scissors, and tableside flatware Brother Joseph created the first buildings of “Little Jerusalem.” These were re-creations of buildings from ancient Jerusalem and Palestine during biblical times, entirely made under two feet. As the collection of buildings grew, so did the number of visiting tourists and neighbors from Cullman. The monk’s peace was disturbed; the Abbey decided to designate a permanent location along the bluff of the abandoned rock quarry. The centerpiece of Brother Joseph’s tiny Holy Land was a large Grotto, twenty-seven feet high at the apex. He embellished the ceiling with metal rods, railroad spikes, and chicken wire, which later transformed into sparkling stalactites. Made of marble, seashells, colored glass, and broken tile, they shine on even the gloomiest days. It’s spectacular. Inside the Grotto, they placed replicas of statues created by illustrious Italian sculptors: Our Lady of Prompt Succor, Saint Benedict, and Saint Scholastica, the founder of the Benedictine nuns. 

Walking through the Ave Maria Grotto is a truly mesmerizing experience. A pathway winds through meticulously arranged structures, all nestled into this tranquil garden setting. The section after section transports you through different regions of the world. He starts with his youth, depicting the buildings that greeted him when he first arrived at Saint Bernard Abbey. The powerhouse where he spent his long days. A miniature Statue of Liberty also represents his newly attained citizenship. Many replicas of Roman Catholic missions are found throughout the American South, Southwest, and West, as well as churches in Alabama and Florida. 

We then find ourselves in Rome. Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican, the Pantheon, and regional monasteries. In “Little Jerusalem,” we see the Garden of Gethsemane, Mount Zion, and Mount Tabor, as well as the Pool of Bethesda from the New Testament, where Jesus healed a paralyzed man. The Tower of Babel is a parable that explains why people speak different languages worldwide. Some of my favorite buildings strike a balance between their extraordinary details, and the naivety that comes from being works of self-taught art is the Modern Cathedral of Tsitsikar, built by Swiss missionaries in Manchuria, and an accident-tiled pyramid. 

You must remind yourself to slow down and marvel at the architectural details Brother Joseph included in this work. Of all the replicas he constructed in person, he had only laid eyes on about six, those in his hometown in Bavaria and the buildings at the Abbey in Alabama. The remains he constructed from photographs, printed descriptions, and the two-dimensional views on postcards that fans would send him from around the world. You must also remind yourself that this was a man with no training; his only schooling was in the ministry, and he was working solely on discarded materials. Brother Joseph created this sanctuary simply with boundless creativity and an unwavering belief in the transformative power of art, faith, and the human capacity to create something extraordinary. These miniatures, the Grotto, the serene pathway through the woods, this was thirty years of consistently making. This man left home young and never wanted to leave his monastery. In his 60th year as a lay monk, he was invited on a pilgrimage to holy sites in Europe. However, he declined. He devoted his entire life to his faith, but crafting this environment was his opportunity to reclaim personal control and satisfaction, even if only on a small scale.