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

88-year-old continues miniature work started by Benedictine monk

by Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller, OSV Newsweekly

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.”

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 now-closed 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.

This article comes to you from OSV Newsweekly (Our Sunday Visitor) courtesy of your parish or diocese.

counter on tumblr


Catholic News & Perspective

Blog Thumbnail

Provides information on the Church, the nation and the world from OSV, America's most popular and trusted national Catholic news source


Stay strong: Don't abandon progress made during Lent

Wednesday, April 23, 2014
by Michelle Martin, OSV Newsweekly As the purple vestments of Lent give way to the white of the Easter season, church pews fill up as the bells... Read More

Bible's take on slavery

Wednesday, April 23, 2014
by Msgr. Charles Pope, OSV Newsweekly Question: I was telling my daughter that the Bible teaches against homosexual acts and, thus, same-sex... Read More

Ways to keep the Faith: A checklist for the Easter season

Wednesday, April 23, 2014
by Gretchen Crowe, OSV Newsweekly The Easter season is often a funny one for the Church. It should be eight weeks of continuous celebration and... Read More

A house divided

Wednesday, April 23, 2014
by Greg Erlandson, OSV Newsweekly There is probably no more divisive topic in the Church right now than the subject of gay marriage. Catholics,... Read More

Shrine of Christ's Passion is monumental

Wednesday, April 16, 2014
by Michelle Martin, OSV Newsweekly The town of St. John in northwest Indiana isn’t so far off the beaten path. Less than an hour from... Read More

'The Church of God welcomes you with great joy'

Wednesday, April 16, 2014
by OSV Readers, OSV Newsweekly There are a number of amazing conversion stories in the New Testament, from the apostles who were called by Christ... Read More

Editorial: Do our hearts burn?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014
by OSV Editorial Board, OSV Newsweekly For the next several weeks, the Church’s liturgical cycle gives us many stories of the conversions of... Read More

Editorial: For teens, their crisis is our crisis

Wednesday, April 9, 2014
by OSV Editorial Board, OSV Newsweekly For many years, this editorial board has lamented the lack of adult faith formation in our Church. It is... Read More

Ukrainian Easter eggs are an expression of faith

Wednesday, April 9, 2014
by Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller, OSV Newsweekly Martha Hyduke remained in Ukraine when her husband, Nick, went to work in the coal mines of... Read More

'Heaven is for Real' dad discusses story, film

Wednesday, April 9, 2014
by Donna-Marie Cooper O'Boyle, OSV Newsweekly An ordinary small town family is forced to grapple with an extraordinary, almost unbelievable... Read More