No small piece of history at Alabama’s Ave Maria Grotto

A tornado in 1963 blew through Cullman, Ala., and toppled a big pine tree in the Ave Maria Grotto at St. Bernard Abbey. It crushed the model of the Tower of Babel, one of more than 100 miniature grottos, churches and monuments Brother Joseph Zoettl had built at the Benedictine monastery.

Brother Zoettl had died two years before the storm, so who was going to repair the damage?

“Call Leo,” someone said. “He can rebuild it.”

Zoettl
In 1892, Brother Zoettl came to St. Bernard Abbey, where he built miniature versions of sacred places. Courtesy photo

Leo Schwaiger, now 88, was a stonemason laying cut stone for the abbey church and had known Brother Joseph while he was a student at one of the Benedictine schools.

Schwaiger did the repairs and, as he put it, “I’ve been doing the work here ever since.”

Some days that means blowing leaves off the sidewalks of the 4-acre site where visitors come either looking for inspiration or because it’s on the National Register of Historic Places. Other days, it means repairing or rebuilding the monk’s creations, or building his own.

“There’s always something to do,” Schwaiger said. “The weather takes a toll on the little buildings, and ... they just crumble.”

Brother Joseph came to the monastery in 1892 and, because of a deformity of his back, was unable to become a priest. He was assigned to the abbey’s “power house” where he shoveled coal.

To break the boredom, he began working creatively with cement and constructed a miniature church. Many more sacred structures followed. When a train filled with quarried marble overturned in 1933, the owner donated the crushed contents to the abbey.

Brother Joseph used the pieces inside the Ave Maria Grotto — the namesake and focal point for his growing collection of reproductions. His last piece was a basilica in Lourdes, France, completed in 1958 when he was 80.

A documentary based on the life of Brother Joseph, produced by Red Clay Pictures, was released in October.

The grotto is still a work in progress for Schwaiger, beginning with his replica of a California mission church, and including, among others, the Gate of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, and the Basilica of Czestochowa in Poland, which he dedicated to Pope John Paul II.

An Irish visitor asked him about building a replica of the basilica of Knock in Ireland, but Schwaiger wasn’t familiar with it. The visitor later sent photos from which Schwaiger could work.

“He came back the next year with his family,” Schwaiger said. “I asked him, ‘How close am I?’ and he stuck his thumb in the air and said, ‘Right on!’”

Schwaiger also makes secular pieces, but overall, the grotto’s replicas are reminders of sacred places that inspire meditation and prayer.

“If Brother Joseph’s and my work combined can inspire one person to seek God,” Schwaiger said, “then all this work is worth it.”

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.