Families enjoy Good Friday at the Ave Maria Grotto

Ramona Calhoun with her son Shannon Calhoun and two of her grandchildren, Adison and Hayden Griffin, from Baileyton enjoyed the gorgeous day Friday at the Ave Maria Grotto. (Christy Perry for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala.- The announcement that the Ave Maria Grotto would not only be open on Good Friday, but that there would be no admission fees, prompted many visitors from around the Cullman area to get outside in the warm sunshine and enjoy a stroll through the Grotto’s beautiful hillside.

Ave Maria Grotto Director Roger Steele described the crowd as a “steady stream.” Steele and his staff are limiting access to the gift shop by opening up the original outside entrance to the Grotto while trying to make sure people maintain proper distance from each other. They consulted with the Cullman Police Department to make sure all state mandates are being respected.

Said Steele, “People are looking for something to do, but right now we are trying to keep things minimalistic. We are just doing this today.”

Steele said that they have primarily been focusing on the bread and food sales during the lockdown, but as an outdoor facility and with churches closed, he wanted to open the Grotto for Good Friday.

He said, “I spoke with Don Slocumb (Cullman Police Department) and asked, ‘What if I just open up on Friday and let people stream in throughout the day?’ So, that’s what we’ve done.”

The Grotto’s bread, honey, jams, coffee, pretzels and cookies continue to be for sale.

Steele said, “Brother Benedict has taken it upon his shoulders to have a bread ministry. With the cancelation of the Bloomin’ Festival, we have plenty of cinnamon-raisin. He has also introduced another style of bread which is ‘Monk’s Ration’ which is a white table bread.”

Visitors Willie and Charlotte Libbee woke up Friday morning and saw a post on Facebook about the opening.

Charlotte Libbee said, “We have wanted to come here for so long and we just never have. I thought, ‘OK, it’s free. Let’s go take advantage of that.’”

Many families made their way through the Grotto, but everyone was being very cautious and maintaining social distancing as instructed by the staff. Several brought their pets, including Greg and Laurie Wilson, who brought their rescue dogs, Lulu and Max.

“We needed to run into town to get a few things and thought this was a good place to be for Good Friday and it (being free) was just a happy coincidence,” Laurie Wilson explained. “It’s beautiful the way the sun is hitting it. It’s great to get some fresh air and also be able to appreciate the fact that it’s Good Friday.”

The Wilsons live in Huntsville but have been enjoying their house on Smith Lake during the COVID-19 emergency.

Ramona Calhoun brought her son Shannon Calhoun and two of her grandchildren, Adison and Hayden Griffin, from Baileyton to enjoy the gorgeous day.

She said, “We come every year to the Bloomin’ Festival since it started and I hate that we aren’t getting to, but I understand. We have been here many times, but the kids don’t remember ever being here.”

“The encouragement was to be able to get out and do something and it has meaning,” Shannon Calhoun added.

The Calhouns love the Monk’s Bread typically sold during the Bloomin’ Festival and were especially thrilled that the bread continues to be sold outside the Grotto’s gift shop. They also caught a glimpse of the Grotto cat and thoroughly enjoyed their outing.

Steele said of his decision to open the Grotto, “It will give people the opportunity to get out but to contemplate the passion of Christ, and maybe that can alleviate some of the stir-craziness and stress. People you talk to, everybody is sniping at each other and everybody is getting concerned about not only their health but about the economy and their jobs. This is a day for some stress release. Get outside and be safe and again we are asking people to stay a proper distance in there.”

Steele also wants people to know that he is offering home delivery for the food sold at the Grotto.

He said, “I will deliver anywhere with no delivery fee as long as the address is in Cullman County.”

In-store pick-up and home delivery is available. For more info, call 256-734-4110 or order online at www.avemariagrotto.com.

Those interested in visiting any other time during the emergency are asked to call ahead. The picnic area is open for those looking for a nice place to enjoy lunch. Guests can also visit the path to the cemetery, the 14 stations and the chapel.

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Greg and Laurie Wilson brought their rescue dogs, Lulu and Max, to the Ave Maria Grotto Friday. (Christy Perry for The Cullman Tribune)