Come for the Rocks, Stay for the Revelation

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.

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Kelli Koob

A statue of Mary holding Jesus sits atop the grotto’s highest point.

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.

Kelli Koob

The grotto’s Stations of the Cross.

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.

A visitor to the grotto produced this video portrait in 2011.

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