Our journey home

The dashboard clock on the Town & Country was clearly against us.

After a leisurely drive to Florida to start our vacation — and a relaxing week spent lounging in the sun at the beach and by the pool — the first leg of the trip home was anything but easygoing.

Pointed north, we had a destination — and a deadline.

Among the first handful of stories I edited when I started working at OSV Newsweekly in early 2014 was a piece about Ave Maria Grotto, whose website describes it as “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 miniatures are made of stone and concrete and include tiny versions of iconic buildings such as St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Peter’s Square, the Colosseum, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City and the Basilica of Czestochowa in Poland.

Of all the activities we had planned on our vacation — a dolphin cruise, snorkeling, sleeping in — Ave Maria Grotto was high on the list of things I was looking forward to most. We planned on stopping on our way down to Florida, but as we neared the exit, Dominic, our 18-month-old, had just fallen asleep. For parents who have taken long trips with babies, Rule No. 1 is this: You don’t stop while the baby is sleeping. We could have been driving by the Grand Canyon or the Eiffel Tower and we still wouldn’t have stopped. So we agreed to visit the grotto on the way home, and I kept driving.

Ave Maria Grotto is located at St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama, a bit north of Birmingham and five hours north of our beachfront condo. We six pilgrims were cruising along and, after stopping for bathroom breaks and ice cream and lunch and gas and bathroom breaks — all while Dominic was awake, of course — we were on track to get to the grotto at 4 p.m. — an hour before it closed. Perfect.

And then traffic.

Somewhere north of Montgomery, Interstate 65 turned into a traffic jam. And not your ordinary traffic jam, but the type of traffic jam you see in disaster movies. It took us 45 minutes to move a mile. At that rate of speed, it would have taken us more than 80 hours to reach the grotto. If we included the bathroom breaks, that number would have pushed us close to 100 hours.

Not knowing if traffic would get going in another two miles or 50 miles, we decided to find an alternate route, so we exited the parking lot and put our faith in God and Google Maps to get us to Ave Maria Grotto. Arrival time on our GPS was now hovering around 5 p.m. — closing time — and getting later the longer we stayed on our detour. There was almost no chance of making it on time.

Attempting a Hail Mary, I suggested to my beautiful, devout wife that she call the grotto to see if they had extended hours during the summer. Maybe we’d catch a break. The recording on the other end relayed the good news. They were open until 6 p.m. If traffic cleared, we’d make it with time to spare.

Around this time, a Google alert popped up on Erin’s phone that said there was an accident on the north side of Birmingham causing delays (a tremendous understatement). At the point where we first hit the traffic jam, we were 60 miles south of Birmingham. That’s how backed up the traffic was. We assumed a meteorite crashing to earth or an earthquake opening a fault line across the highway, mostly likely, caused the accident, but we never found out which.

With renewed hope, we sped north on our two-lane road, making good progress on our pilgrimage. But soon, others frustrated with the standstill on the highway joined us on the back roads, and again we were trapped.

By the time we cleared Birmingham and were back on the interstate, the arrival time stated 6:05, but traffic was moving briskly. Motivated, I was speeding to keep pace. When we reached our exit, the Town & Country said it was 5:52. The grotto is only five minutes off of the highway; so onward we sped through the small town.

While nobody’s life was on the line, it felt like I was trapped inside an episode of “24” — a lame, Catholic family version of “24.” We zipped through traffic, racing against the clock. It was intense.

We pulled into the grotto’s parking lot at 5:57, and, leaving the family behind, I ran to the entrance door. The sign said “open.”

We made it. An equal mixture of joy and relief washed over me.

There were two ladies behind the welcome desk. I apologized for coming in so late, explaining to them that we’d been driving all day to get there, the traffic jams and the detours and the bathroom breaks and our family’s devotion to Mary and I know it’s late but could we please get in?

“I’m sorry,” said one of the ladies, pointing to the clock behind her that was running faster than the Town & Country’s. “But it’s past 6 o’clock, and we’re closed.”

I tried again, explaining the journey, that my family is working the kinks out of their legs right now and are on their way in and could we have just a few moments to walk around?

Still, she said no, telling me they would open again in the morning. By then, we’d be 150 miles away in Nashville.

After a day’s worth of anticipation, the rejection was crushing. I walked back to the van, head hung, and explained it to Erin and the kids, who were ready to storm the gates.

And so we spent a perfect summer evening walking the beautiful grounds of St. Bernard Abbey, dejectedly seeing the sites and hoping to find a monk who would hear our story and take pity on six travel-weary pilgrims. We didn’t see a soul.

We did, however, notice a well-worn path through some brush that led down a short hill to the grotto. No fence. No security guards. Only our consciences stood in the way of succeeding in our daylong mission. And after the frustration of having our initial pleas fall on deaf ears, we were certainly tempted to sneak into the site. Would it truly be trespassing if the only goal was to honor Mary (and take a boatload of pictures)?

Statue of Mary and Jesus at St. Bernard Abbey Church in Cullman, Alabama. Photo by Scott Warden

Our pesky do-good consciences wrestled with our senses of justice and eventually won out.

But the statues scattered around the grounds are beautiful, and the abbey church is gorgeous and (when Dominic was romping outside) peaceful. In the back, a glass case contained the first-class relics of St. Benedict, St. Camillus de Lellis, St. Andrew and others. The saints, as they do, offered a sense of perspective.

Exploring the church further, we came upon a beautiful statue of Mary holding Jesus, and for the second time that evening, I hung my head. But this time, it was to say a short prayer before we all piled back into the van and prepared for the long journey home.

Scott Warden is the associate editor of OSV Newsweekly. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_OSV
For more of Scott's Confessions of a Catholic Dad, click here.