September 3, 2021


Cullman, Alabama, hardly seems a likely place to establish a Benedictine monastery—but St. Bernard Abbey has been there since the 1890s. On the first day of our road trip, we stopped by to stroll through the monastery’s Ave Maria Grotto, located on the site of what once was a stone quarry.  

Brother Joseph Zoetl was born in Bavaria and when he was 14, he began his monastic life at St. Bernard Abbey. Working in the power house, he shoveled coal into the furnaces. When he was 34, he began a lifelong creative project in which he lovingly constructed 125 miniature buildings. He completed his final one when he was 80 and died three years later.

The structures represent many Bible stories, well-known basilicas, grottos and shrines, as well as sacred buildings of the Holy Land and Rome.  He had seen very few of the actual buildings but read extensively and used his creative imagination.  The photo below shows many buildings in Rome.

Heather used the word “bricolage” to describe Brother Joseph’s handiwork. It comes from a French verb meaning “to tinker” and describes construction or creation (in art or literature) from a diverse range of available things. He used stone, cement, marbles, broken plates, seashells and more. The unique end products are surprisingly fascinating. Even inspirational.

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