Known throughout the world as "Jerusalem in Miniature," is a beautifully landscaped, four-acre park designed to provide a natural setting for the 125 miniature reproductions of some of the most famous historic buildings and shrines of the world. The masterpieces of stone and concrete are the lifetime work of Brother Joseph Zoettl, a Benedictine monk of St. Bernard Abbey. Begun as a hobby, with various materials he could find, and infinite patience and a remarkable sense of symmetry and proportion, Brother Joseph re-created some of the greatest edifices of all time.
The builder of the miniatures at the Ave Maria Grotto was a Benedictine Monk -- Brother Joseph Zoettl, O.S.B. Born in Landshut, Bavaria in 1878, he was maimed in an accident that gave him a hunchback, but luckily it did not hurt his ability to bend over and build the miniatures. He came to Saint Bernard Abbey in 1892. After becoming a Brother in the Benedictine Order, he was appointed to the power plant for the Abbey, and while there he developed his hobby of building miniature shrines.
In contemplating the Main Grotto, which was to be the centerpiece of the whole park, Br. Joseph had yet to decide on the type of building materials he would employ and where they would come from. A partial solution was handed to him on April 29, 1933, when there was a derailment of the L&N railroad about twenty miles away near Vinemont, Alabama. One freight car full of marble from the Gantt Quarry, Sylacauga, Alabama overturned and the marble was crushed. It was useless to the owner so he gave it to Saint Bernard. The monks went up and carted it down to Saint Bernard; it was exactly what Brother Joseph needed as the main stalactites to hang in the Great Grotto.
The material which adorned the works had been donated by people who admired and had seen the beauty in his previous works: the small grottoes enclosing Father Lawrence O'Leary's bargain statues, crucifixes, ash trays, etc. People sent colored glass, marbles, cold cream jars, punctured commode floats, wrecked marble, broken bathroom tile, costume jewelry, gifts from every state in the union and from many foreign countries.
The first replicas were erected on the monastery recreation grounds, but because of the large number of visitors, a new site was selected and on May 17, 1934 the Ave Maria Grotto was dedicated. Brother Joseph continued his work for over 40 years, using materials sent from all over the world. He built his last model, the Basilica in Lourdes, at the age of 80, in 1958.
The Ave Maria Grotto, located on the grounds of Alabama's first and only Benedictine Abbey, consists of over 125 miniatures, reproductions of famous churches, shrines and buildings. Encompassing an area of over three acres, this miniature fairyland sees visitors from all over the world.