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Ave Maria Grotto
1600 St. Bernard Dr. SE
Cullman, AL 35055

The Ave Maria Grotto is located at the St. Bernard Abbey, a Benedictine monastery on the outskirts of Cullman. The Grotto is an incredible piece of folk art, entirely constructed by an elderly hunchbacked monk, Brother Joseph, an immigrant from Bavaria. He spent 60 years (until shortly before his death in 1961) constructing miniature models of famous Biblical sites, holy shrines, and significant world spots featuring everything from landmarks of ancient Rome to the missions of California to a “fairy temple visited by Hansel and Gretel.”

You’ll see many photos, but trust us; they don’t do it justice. Some of the models are more or less scale detailed replicas simulating the stone or whatever construction of the original; some are more primitive, using found objects and trash (shells, glass bottles, old cold cream jars, even floats from a toilet tank, and the glass balls from a fishing net).

It’s flatly remarkable, such a labor of love, and such a clear way for this man to meditate and connect with his God. It’s set on peaceful forested hillside that should be photographed and placed in the dictionary next to the word serene.

Lest you think from our previous reaction to Christ of the Ozarks that we are irreverent secularists who wouldn’t know spirituality if it stole our donut, it was here at this simple spot that we felt the presence of the numinous. Despite the no-doubt spiritual relationship between the attraction's visitors and creators and the Ozark attraction itself, it was obviously intended primarily as a commercial venture whereas the Grotto was an act of love. And therein lies the difference.

The Ave Maria Grotto was one of the best things we’ve seen on the trip. We are grateful to the people of Columbus, Mississippi for not having the Tennessee Williams Festival when they said they were going to so our last minute revision to the itinerary included this place.

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