Ave Maria Grotto, St. Bernard Abbey announce major restoration project

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The Ave Maria Grotto is located on the grounds of St. Bernard Abbey, the only Benedictine monastery of men in the state of Alabama. (Facebook/Ave Maria Grotto)

CULLMAN, Ala. – The monks and staff of St. Bernard Abbey and Ave Maria Grotto on Monday, June 3, announced a major restoration project on the grounds of Ave Maria Grotto. This effort, which will help restore and preserve 125-plus structures in the park, will ensure the structural and artistic viability of Br. Joseph’s artwork for decades to come. 

The Grotto, located on the campus of St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, was built by Br. Joseph Zoettl, one of the first monks who came to Alabama in the late 19th century to establish a Benedictine monastery in Cullman.  For over 50 years, Br. Joseph created over 125 miniature structures of famous buildings, cathedrals and shrines from around the world. Today, the current park – which was opened in 1934 – is visited by over 40,000 people each year. 

Over the decades these structures – some of which are over 120 years old – have been structurally and artistically degraded due to weather, vegetation and other issues that affect an outdoor attraction. 

“When I came here five years ago, I immediately noticed a need to preserve these wonderful works of art,” said Roger Steele, the director of Ave Maria Grotto. “With the help of some wonderful friends of St. Bernard Monastery, we began reaching out for partners to help us restore the entire park to its original beauty.” 

The search for an experienced authority on historical preservation led the monastery to contact the Kohler Foundation, a nationally respected organization that is renowned for its commitment to the preservation of art environments and collections throughout the United States.  After several months of research and visits, Kohler agreed to invest resources into the project to preserve the park. 

“Kohler Foundation is honored to invest in the full conservation of Brother Joseph Zoettl’s Ave Maria Grotto,’ said Beth Wiza, preservation projects manager for the Kohler Foundation.  “For over 30 years Kohler Foundation has preserved art environments across the country – from Maine to Alabama and many places in between. It’s exciting to increase access to the arts and build community though art preservation projects.”

The actual work on park structures will be done by The Williamstown + Atlanta Art Conservation Center (W+AACC), an organization dedicated to the protection and conservation of heritage objects that specializes in the treatment and preservation of art in many forms. 

“We are honored to be a part of this incredible project to preserve the work of Brother Joseph for future generations,” said Lindsay Ryder, asst. objects conservator for W+AACC.  “This project is a testament to Kohler’s ongoing commitment to the preservation of culturally significant sites across the United States.”

The preservation work at the Grotto will be a two-year project that will touch every structure on the property.  The Grotto will remain open during all phases of work. 

“Tucked away at St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama, the beloved site will be open while conservators examine and treat each artwork,” said Wiza.  “We invite the community to watch the process of cleaning and stabilization and witness conservators bring the artwork back to its glory before weather, roots and other natural forces caused damage.”

Learn more about the Grotto at www.avemariagrotto.com.