When Michael Zoettl entered the Benedictines at St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama, he had no plans of building a shrine. Taking the name Brother Joseph, he soon was assigned to the menial tasks necessary to keep the abbey running, including shoveling coal for the abbey’s power plant.
Although Joseph was obedient to his superiors and did his best, he found the work tedious. For relief, in his spare time he began to build miniature shrines that held little holy statues. These miniatures were sold at the abbey gift shop to support the missions.
Soon, Brother Joseph had expanded into a new line of miniaturesÑbuilding replicas of holy sites from around the world. Between 1932 and 1958, Brother Joseph created more than 125 little models of famous churches and sacred sites.
He had no money to buy materials for his miniatures; instead he relied on what he could find and what people gave him. The result is a quirky, imaginative collection of reused materials on three wooded acres.
Brother Joseph used concrete, ceramic tiles, seashells, and more for his little structures, embellished with bits of costume jewelry, plastic animals, and marbles. Little scraps all become sacred here, all devoted to the Blessed Mother.
But Brother Joseph also had a patriotic sideÑhe designed mini memorials for fallen veterans of World War II, a tribute to the Statue of Liberty, and a replica of the Alamo. He also made a model of the abbey power plant that he knew so well. As is true of lots of folk art, there is a naive, whimsical charm to his creations.
Before you head over to the gift shop or back to your car, be sure to visit the beautiful abbey church.
Ave Maria Grotto
1600 St. Bernard Dr. SE
Cullman, AL 35055
Adapted from 101 Places to Pray Before You Die by Thomas J. Craughwell (Franciscan Media).