If our road trip route makes little or no sense, remember, after all, we ARE ADHD. I think zig zagging around is just in our nature! I tried for weeks to plan the best course of action before I threw the map in the air and figured, whatever!
Metal music once again blaring, interrupted briefly by some Journey, maybe some Phil Collins here and there, a stray show tune or two and of course, you have to throw The Coasters in the mix (A is partial to the songs Little Egypt and Soul Pad. haha) we were once again on the road. Today’s first stop was Cullman, Alabama and a place called the Ave Maria grotto.
I was at the grotto in 1977. Yikes, that was a long time ago!
It seemed strange to see this place listed among “odd” sights. I guess I never thought of it that way. When I stop to think about it though, it IS pretty odd. I remembered bits and pieces about it, and how, as a kid, it was the most magical thing I’d ever seen. It’s still pretty magical, it’s just aged a bit since then.
What is this place you ask?
The Ave Maria Grotto is the life work of Brother Joseph Zoettl, a Benedictine monk of St. Bernard Abbey. Throughout the world, the grotto is known as “Jerusalem in miniature.” Brother Joseph spent fifty years making miniature reproductions of some of the most historic buildings of all time. There are also a few whimsical touches, such as a scene depicting Hansel and Gretel, complete with fire breathing dragon, and a tower (not sure what else to call it) that he called the Statue of Liberty that he created when he became a U.S. citizen. I don’t think that he foresaw what his “hobby” would turn into when he first started creating his miniatures to break the tedium of his long workdays.
Ave Maria Grotto is a landscaped, four acre park located at St. Bernard Abbey showcasing the amazing works Brother Joseph created. The main thing that makes these works so unique is that Brother Joseph had to use whatever materials he could get his hands on, or that was donated to him to build them. He used cement, of course, but the rest is created with marbles, rocks, bits of glass, bottle caps, seashells, cold cream jars, tile – anything and everything. And the result is truly remarkable.
The effect is both whimsical, chaotic, and awe inspiring. A kept saying she would have loved to have been able to meet and talk to Brother Joe because he would have been such an interesting person. I think she was probably right.
You could easily see the Grotto in forty five minutes, but we spent two hours in the quiet hillside solitude enjoying the handiwork of one very imaginative and creative monk.
And what is even better than that? Two loaves of the delicious raisin bread baked by the monks at St. Bernard. Yes, one loaf was opened as soon as we got to the car where it was unceremoniously torn into hunks. No knife. No shame. Quite unladylike, but there you have it.
On a side note, it was a bit sad to me to see so much debris in and around the pieces. I know repair work is underway (pieces date back to the 1930’s) but although the grounds are immaculate many of the pieces just look sad with dead, decaying leaves and twigs in and around them as well as cobwebs. Just cleaning out in and around them and maybe some light scrubbing would do wonders – or would have done wonders all along if done periodically. It didn’t really take away from it all, I just kept wondering why they weren’t kept up more. Lack of volunteers I suppose.
Other than that, to see how much my artistic teen admired the whimsy and creativity of it all was fun to see. And monk bread. Monk bread is good.
Next we stopped at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception located in Hanceville. Before a few months ago, I was unaware that this shrine existed, – or at least existed as it is. I knew there was an order of Poor Clare nuns in northern Alabama somewhere near Cullman. I just didn’t know what they had built.
I knew about Mother Angelica (the founder) but only as the founder of a religious television network, but this place is truly a beautiful place to reflect and pray. And if my memory serves me correctly (and it may not – this is just what I think I remember reading somewhere,) when Mother Angelica first felt she was given the task to create a shrine to the Blessed Sacrament – a place for people from all over to come and find a place of prayer and worship – she was tasked with figuring out how, of course, to pay for the massive church she wanted to build. I believe I read, but can’t find it right now, that one family came forward and funded her dream. I think that is rather remarkable. The church was built faster than she ever imagined, and as far as I can tell, her wish has come true as people from all over, and from all faiths, visit.
Oh, one more thing I learned today? According to A- chipmunks must be Catholic because she has seen them at every monastery she’s visited. Now I know. 😉
I was going to snap a few photos of the outside of the church, or at least the gift shop/cafeteria (that was built to resemble a Spanish fortress) but I had left my camera in the car when we went in and I left without getting it.
Leaving the Shrine we were driving down a winding country road when on the side of the road was a collection of portable toilets. A snaps a photo saying well, yesterday she’d seen the world’s largest chair, today it was a port-o-potty graveyard. She quickly sent the picture to her aunt, saying excitedly, LOOK! Yesterday I saw a chair! Today I saw Port-o-potties!! I think my sister was seriously wondering what kind of vacation we were on.
We changed our plan slightly here and ended up at Rickwood Caverns in time for the last cave tour of the day. A and I were the only two people on the tour so we really had a great time as we were able to go slowly and look at everything that interested her and ask questions.
I’ve always loved visiting caverns and A really enjoys it, so I’m glad we got to incorporate a visit. It was also an excellent way to get out of the sweltering Alabama heat for a few minutes since caverns typically stay nice and cool.
I was exhausted, but in a good way, as we sat in our motel room, but I was glad to get out of there the following morning. Things didn’t look so bad from the exit where we decided to stop, but the place ended up seeming a bit sketchy. A figured they were hosting a perv convention as several different men made inappropriate comments to her when she went to get something out of the car.
Onward we went…but that will have to wait.