The Grotto Gardens: Custodians of Wonder
Keeping your word is hard enough. Who’s steadfast enough to fulfill someone else’s promise, when that means several decades of hauling mulch and pulling weeds?
Kris Willfahrt and her sister Connie Jagodzinki of Wood County, Wisconsin, are such expansive promise-keepers. They and others in Rudolph, Wisconsin, are living out the vow that Philip Wagner, then a young seminarian, made a century ago: to build a living “place of consolation.”
Wagner had been studying for the priesthood in Europe when he fell seriously ill. Visiting the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, one of its thousands of pilgrims, he swore that if he were restored to health, he would create a monument of faith and gratitude.
Wagner survived. He was ordained in 1915 and two years later was assigned to work in rural Wisconsin, at the parish of St. Philomena.
When the diocese chose to build a new church and acquired the property for its construction, five acres in the village of Rudolph, Father Wagner’s saw his opportunity. "This was it - the place I was looking for,” he wrote, “where my dreams were to be realized.”
Beginning in 1919, with no experience in masonry or horticulture, he began planting trees, constructing flowerbeds and amassing a collection of rock from the surrounding area. He was helped by Edmund Rybicki, just 12 years old when he joined Fr. Wagner in the work. Together they completed an homage to Our Lady of Lourdes in 1928, the first of what would be some 40 religious shrines, patriotic monuments, and memorials.
Most astounding of all is Father Wagner's “Wonder Cave,” fashioned after the catacombs. A hillock of stones gathered from the Milladore-Blenker vicinity ten miles away, the grotto contains a trail 1/5 of a mile long. The interior journey coils past statues of Jesus, Mary and the saints and by sacred signs made of punctured metal and illuminated with sparkling lights, blue, red and gold. The mood within, especially on a warm summer day, is soothing but startling, too. And the trail itself, dark, narrow and winding, is enough to slow any visitor down to a pilgrim’s pace.
Rudolph Grotto Gardens Come to see, stay to wonder.
Astonishing as the Rudolph sanctuary is, in fact, it's one among several such sites; 90 years ago, this region was stricken with grotto-fever.
“The Midwest is home to the largest concentration of grottos in the world,” writes Peyton Smith. “They are derivations of a European tradition that priests, primarily German Catholics, brought with them to the new country. Grottos reflect the times in which they were first built: when illnesses swept the world and wiped out huge segments of the population.”
One of the earliest and best known, The Grotto of the Redemption, was built by Father Paul Dobberstein, a native of Germany who became parish priest at Saint Peter and Paul’s Church in West Bend, Iowa. Fr. Dobberstein had been healed of influenza, and like Philip Wagner promised to build a sacred shrine should he survive. According to Smith, Fr. Dobberstein envisioned the grotto as a “refuge” like the natural caves that had for centuries protected shepherds from storms. With training in and a fascination for geology, Fr. Dobberstein searched out precious stones to embellish his shrine, assembling them onto a prismatic gem of faith in the years between 1912 and 1957. According to several sources, the minerals that make up the Grotto of the Redemption are worth more than $4 million.
Fr. Dobberstein’s work inspired many others to undertake building sacred shrines, most – but not all -- of them in rural locations of the Upper Midwest. Directly inspired by Dobberstein’s effort was
Mathias Wernerus who built the Dickeyville Grotto from 1920-1930.
Cultural anthropoligist Anne Pryor writes that the site at Dickeyville and others “reflect American religious politics in the 1920s. Until the election of John Kennedy as the United States' first Catholic president, the patriotism of Roman Catholics was often questioned standings about their allegiance to the pope.... To show that Catholics could love both church and country, Fr. Mathius Wernerus, the Dickeyville Grotto's builder, created two stone pillars on either side of the main grotto. In colorful tile and stone, one pillar depicts the U.S. flag and spells 'Patriotism'; the other shows the papal flag and spells 'Religion.'"