The Grotto Gardens: Custodians of Wonder

In Rudolph, Wisconsin, a sacred promise of devotion lives on 100 years later. Keep the faith, but mulch the hostas, too.

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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
Fr. Philip Wagner, a native of rural Iowa, was one of several Catholic priests whose “grotto fever” took hold in the first half of the 20th Century.
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.'”


The Grotto Gardens in Rudolph (click through the slideshow, above) also combine religious devotion with national zeal. There’s a War Memorial built after World War II, and a patriotic shrine featuring a 78-ton boulder overarched with the Pledge of Allegiance.

Susannah Kroeber of the Indiana State Museum has studied the region’s grottos for over 20 years. In the 1920s-’30s, the heyday of this phenomenon, “There was a strong devotional focus in Catholic Church…which could be expressed through grotto building,” she writes.

Kroeber has found that that the proliferation of grottos was linked to other societal changes: “Good roads were becoming more widespread during this period, and automobiles/trucks were easily available. This meant that builders could more easily move material and people could visit sites further away. Lists of all the places that the builders visited and their strenuous efforts to acquire appropriate materials are standard parts of the narrative around many shrines, and all of the large ones.

“Nor should tourism be underestimated as a factor,” Kroeber writes. “The major grotto builders all included facilities for tourists.  From the souvenir shrine and the refreshments to the Wonder Cave and Wisconsin in Miniature, Fr. Wagner was well aware of how to attract and serve visitors to the site, including non-Catholics.  He described the site as being somewhere between a church and a public park in the degree of freedom and reverence that visitors would experience.”

Julie Ardery
On top of the Wonder Cave sits a sundial Fr. Wagner made during the winter of 1934.
Along with this melding of “freedom and reverence,” Fr. Wagner’s grotto in Rudolph is especially notable — and powerful — for its graceful integration of statuary with living plants, architecture with trees. The religious message is clear but it’s conveyed gently, as an invitation, quiet as the bowed heads of Fr. Wagner’s asiatic lilies.

The high point of interest in Rudolph’s Grotto Gardens appears to have been 1956; then, 68,000 people recorded their names in the visitors book. Now, according to Connie Jagodzinski, the shrine receives only about 1500 visitors a year.

People’s impulses for travel, and their capacities to satisfy those impulses, have changed dramatically in the past 50 years. There’s loads more competion, for one. “Now where isn’t there a place to go?” Jagodzinski asks. The Interstate highway system sails people past many rural and historic attractions, on to the Malls of America, Legolands and theme parks. “There are no rides here,” she says.

Having been a student at the Catholic school just adjacent to the gardens (as were her mother and her own children), Jagodzinski has known the Grotto Gardens all her life, yet still stands open mouthed with awe looking about the cottage that is now its museum. She has been volunteering here since 1986, and sister Kris Willfahrt is the garden manager. Other members of the church congregation help too, operating a gift store and staging a major celebration every August. Donations are accepted but visiting is free.

Bill Bishop
The Grotto Gardens combine religious statuary, mosaics, and structures built of the region’s intriguing stone in a shady garden setting.

Fr. Wagner died in 1959, and two years later the church was renamed St. Philip the Apostle in his honor. His assistant of three decades, Edmund Rybicki continued to build the Grotto Gardens, as did Fr. Wagner’s successors at the parish, Fr. Garlan Muller and Fr. Robert Perkins. The gardens’ excellent new website states, “The last project was completed in 1983.”

Is that so?

In late July the local nurseries, winding down, donate scores of trays of annuals—marigolds, impatiens, and coleus – to the Grotto Gardens to finish out the summer with color. Kris and Connie water in new plants around the Fourteen Stations of the Cross and mulch the hostas just beyond the Seven Sorrows of Mary.

Bill Bishop
Kris Willfahrt (left) manages the Grotto Gardens. She and her sister Connie Jadogzinski, who once were students at the church school here, worked feverishly in July to prepare for the big annual celebration.

Kris has her hair tied up in the heat and wears an onion plaster on one arm, salving a bee sting. Asked how many hours she typically devotes to the garden, she looks down: “I get here usually about 6 and leave about 6 p.m.” Some promises require a lot of upkeep.

“I like to work hard and I like a challenge,” she smiles, “so this is place to be.”

The Grotto Gardens are always open. The Gift Shop, Museum, and Chapel are open from Memorial Day through the middle of September, seven days a week, 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM. There is a nominal fee to tour the Wonder Cave. The Grotto Gardens are free. Susannah Kroeber will present “Grottos in the Heartland” at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, IA, October 8. Here’s more information.

 

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