A parish priest’s devotion created the Grotto of the Redemption, a mineralogical miracle that attracts 40,000 visitors a year to the small town of West Bend, Iowa.
West Bend, Iowa, bills itself as a “Rock Solid City.” Likely that label refers to its other descriptor: “Home of the Grotto of the Redemption.”
West Bend was founded as a small railroad town in 1856 and named for its location on a sharp turn on the Des Moines River. Today its civic institutions include a merged school district that plays eight-man football, four churches, a medical clinic and a public library. It has a volunteer fire and ambulance crew, and a police department that recently hired a full-time police officer to assist the police chief.
No matter which direction you approach town from, your route is through miles of corn and soybean fields. But it isn’t the robust farmland or the equally robust football team that draws an estimated 40,000 visitors to town each year. It is the stately, inspirational Grotto of the Redemption on the grounds of Sts. Peter and Paul Church that has that distinction.
The Grotto of the Redemption was built in stages by a German parish priest, Father Paul Dobberstein. The first grotto, which he started building in 1912, is described as three half-circles built in honor of the three divine persons. Many of the rocks in this original grotto are calcite, which came from a cave in South Dakota near the Black Hills. Over the decades, through the tireless gathering and construction efforts of Father Dobberstein, eight more connected grottos were built, thus creating what is billed as the largest grotto in the world. There are rocks from every state, country and every major river in the world, according to Grotto information.
A grotto is a type of cave, usually artificially constructed. There are many around the world built to attract religious or spiritual pilgrims. Father Dobberstein’s structure contains materials such as petrified wood, malachite, azurite, agates, geodes, jasper, quartz, topaz, calcite, stalactites and stalagmites. Some he gathered himself, others were purchased or donated to the grotto over the years. He had the help of others with this construction, of course, and as he aged a new parish priest eventually took over. Father Dobberstein died in 1954. The new priest, Father Greving, was both church pastor and grotto director. Father Greving died in 2002. Since that time, lay people have been in charge of maintaining the grotto and grounds. Its current director is Mary Straub Lavelle. She oversees the daily operation of the site and is its main fundraiser. The grotto employs administrative staff, tour guides and, of course, maintainence staff.
“The stone is kept in place by a unique and wonderful stone mix, but some is a hundred years old,” Lavelle said. “There is always repair work to be done, finding out where moisture might be coming in and repairing it.” Besides the grottos themselves, there are other buildings on the site made of similar materials. There is a gift shop, museum, café and a 53-site camp ground and shelter.
The grounds themselves also need care. Staff mow, tend the flower gardens and maintain the pond with fountain, which contains a breeding pair of trumpeter swamps and other wild creatures. “Everyone kicks in,” Lavelle said of the varied job descriptions of most employees. “Our tour guide is also a gardener. Everyone has their niche.”
I visited the Grotto of the Redemption on a recent weekend while traveling in western Iowa. I saw the little red lettering on my road map indicating a place of special interest. I planned my route so I’d be able to make a quick stop, maybe take a few pictures from the car window and head to my destination.
It took me a few minutes of driving around West Bend to find the grotto. There are signs directing the way, but sometimes signage is hard to trust when you see no other evidence that the site you seek is actually there. I decided to have faith in the signs, and after a few minutes of seemingly convoluted turns, approached the grotto grounds parking lot. I could see flat terrain with a characteristic Catholic church skyline on a slight incline beyond. Between the parking lot and the church was the lake, and I spent a few minutes trying to coax the swans to pull their heads out of their wings and pose for a photo. Finally, I thought, well, I’m here, I might as well stroll on into the grotto.
I should mention here that I was raised Catholic and so am culturally susceptible to saint iconography and any depiction of Bible scenes. That personal background would have been enough to open me to the beauty of the workmanship and storytelling the grotto presents. But I got there at just the right time of the day, when the bright overhead sun illuminated the purple amethysts and the quartz crystals. The site was simply dazzling. I felt myself pulled as if by a tractor beam along the paved path into the grotto labyrinth. I glided past a statue of Moses giving to the world the Ten Commandments. Then on to the next grotto, in which 65 tons of petrified wood had been transformed into a traditional manger scene of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. The tallest point of the structure is a 40-foot mountain-like grotto topped with a marble statue depicting Mary holding the body of the crucified Jesus, similar to Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” My personal favorite stretch along the path was the hall-like space where the 14 Stations of the Cross are on display. These are scenes from the life of Christ, told in rock, stone and mosaic tile.
I was a bit early for lunch in the café or a stop in the museum or gift store on this Labor Day weekend. I saw only a few other people and no tour guides. One family had small children who ran up and down the paths and naturally had to have their wings clipped a bit to keep them from climbing on rocks or darting into some of the niches and harming the marble statues. All the while, heavenly sounding music played over loudspeakers. On this day, it sounded like a new-age hand bell choir.
I thought about the fragility and irreplaceable nature of the grotto and wondered a bit about the security of the space. Lavelle had told me that Father Dobberstein desired that the grotto always be open and never fenced. To make a few concessions to modern realities, she said, the lights and music do go off at 10 p.m.. Unfortunately, in recent weeks it appears someone did come into the space after dark and apparently climb around on the rock structures, causing some damage and harming a statue in the Garden of Gethsemane. That incident is still being investigated, but without security camera footage it may take awhile to get to the bottom of things.
In spite of rather informal security, the site has seen remarkably little vandalism over the years. In fact, Lavelle can count them on one hand. It isn’t that art thieves or rock hounds are prowling the place after hours looking to fill their car trunks with loot. Parents improperly supervising children are usually the cause of the trouble. “Some parents don’t realize they need to tell children not to touch, just like in a museum” she said.
Lavelle, who has been grotto director since May, has spent much of her life in northwest Iowa. She says that local residents appreciate the grotto, although they might not visit it frequently. It is a typical case of tourist-destination syndrome.
“If you grew up next to Statue of Liberty, you don’t notice it so much,” she pointed out.
However, she notes that the grotto does bring tourists who boost business at the downtown shops and restaurants. She also suspects the grotto is one reason the local historical society is especially strong and recently opened a new museum in connection with a historical sod house.
Lavelle is confident that partially because of grotto visitors, Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church will not be closed like so many small Catholic parishes throughout the state have been in recent years. She adds that not all visitors to the grotto come for religious inspiration.
“Even if you are not religious you can enjoy meditation, or learn about rocks and geology,” she said, describing the many reasons one might pull off the road and spend time in West Bend. Or do as I did: come for the rocks, stay for the revelation.
Julianne Couch is the author of “Traveling the Power Line: From the Mojave Desert to the Bay of Fundy.”A visitor to the grotto produced this video portrait in 2011.