The Grotto Gardens: Custodians of Wonder

[imgbelt img=wonder-cave320.jpg]In Rudolph, Wisconsin, a sacred promise of devotion lives on 100 years later. Keep the faith, but mulch the hostas, too.


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.”

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.

Here’s more information.