Brother Joseph Zoettl was a Benedictine Monk who spent nearly 50 years, from 1912 to 1958, creating the miniature stone city known as the Ava Maria Grotto on the grounds of the St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama. A Bavarian born hunchback, Brother Joseph was able to stoop down and faithfully recreate 125 religious and otherwise significant buildings including the Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Some of the other tiny replicas included in the four-acre hillside constructions are the Tower of Babel and, oddly enough, the Alamo!
Brother Joe’s real job at the Abbey was to work in the power plant, but his hobby of grotto building soon became an all-consuming passion. His diminutive city, sometimes call "Jerusalem in Miniature" is constructed of concrete and decorated with all manner or junk, from marbles and costume jewelry to seashells and ceramic tiles, much of which has been donated by visitors from around the world.
The Grotto is probably best described on the site’s official web page, which states: The gift shop provides entry to a forested trail, winding down past several miniature building clusters and junk-bejeweled shrines. Round a bend, and you see it-an entire hillside packed in urban splendor with cathedrals and famous building. One half of the hillside features building and scenes from the Holy Land. There's also a central artificial cave-the Ave Maria Grotto.
Among the numerous replicas which elicit admiration and wonderment from the visitor are the famous buildings of Jerusalem and the Holy Land,
familiar to all from the Bible; Roman Landmarks, as St. Peter's and the Colosseum; the famous Spanish Missions of the American Southwest, and replicas of the famous Shrines of Our Lady, Fatima and Lourdes.
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.
Brother Joseph died in 1961 and is buried in the Abbey cemetery a short distance from the Grotto gift shop. The Ava Maria Grotto is still lovingly maintained though, and open to the public on all days except Christmas. It is located at 1600 St. Bernard Dr. S. E. (off US 278), just east of Cullman, Alabama.