Saving History One Landmark at a Time: Ongoing Restoration Work at the Grotto of the Ave Maria | New

Weather and time can conspire to degrade and deteriorate even the best constructed landmark, and that’s true whether that landmark is the Shrine of Fatima in Portugal – or a miniature representation of it in Cullman, Ala .

Ave Maria Grotto is a four-acre landscape park located on a former quarry on the grounds of St. Bernard Abbey. This setting houses 125 miniature reproductions of some of the world’s most famous religious structures – stone and concrete models that were the life work of Brother Joseph Zoettl, a Benedictine monk at the monastery who dedicated five decades to the project. , only stopping work in 1958 due to poor health.

Constructed largely from trash – discarded building materials, bricks, marbles, tiles, pipes, seashells, plastic statues and animals, costume jewelery and even old cosmetic jars – the cave is a cornucopia of religious models and icons, a world pilgrimage site that can be visited in an afternoon.

Those who spend an afternoon visiting today will not only find miniature reproductions of installations such as St. Peter’s Basilica, the Abbey of Monte Cassino or even more secular sites such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa or a German castle, they will probably encounter miniature constructions. sights and artists like Allison Bohorfoush or blacksmith Allen Kress, two members of a team of craftsmen working to repair the damage caused by decades of sun, rain, wind and Mother Nature’s cold on outdoor attractions which will attract more than 35,000 visitors per year.

That number of tourists is not lost on Renee Welsh, and it ties in well with her successful application for a visual arts program grant from the Alabama State Council on the Arts. But the need to renovate the structures of a facility that has been on the National Register since 1984 — the cave was the first nomination of a folk art environment in Alabama to the National Register of Historic Places — was more than that.

“It’s community driven,” Welsh said. “It’s the passion and the love for the cave of the local people.

Turning that passion into a call to action, Welsh and others have identified “between 30 and 35 structures that need love, care and restoration”, starting with the miniature Die Wald Kapelle – the chapel in Woods.

This chapel is representative of one the Bavarian-born monk would have known since his youth, Bohorfoush said. Its restoration took nearly three months, as Birmingham artist Kress and master glassmaker Tom Dameron worked to not only preserve a legacy, but also secure a future.

“I can imagine the influence Brother Joseph’s work has had on people who come here from all walks of life, from all religions,” Bohorfoush said. “That’s the whole story.”

This is also what it is about for Kress, whose local heritage is built on the cave.

“I’m on a loop,” Kress said. “My great-grandfather and my grandfather both worked here. The monks hired local farmers who farmed in the summer, but were hired in the winter when things were slow.

The slow weather meant working in the rock quarry and logging, Kress said, helping to shape the grounds of the monastery, including what would become the Forest Trail that holds Brother Joseph’s masterpieces.

“Now I’m back, 140 years later,” Kress said, and doing work in that same area. As well as building an iron frame needed for Die Wald Kapelle – “You can’t see it now, but it was about to fall on itself,” he said. – Kress is also forging and installing new handrails throughout the park, with no detail too small to overlook.

“I try to mix the new with the old,” Kress said of the railings. “Even the style of the finish, beeswax and linseed oil, is very traditional.”

It’s this tradition that is the most forward-thinking part of the project, said Amy Jenkins, visual arts program manager for the Alabama State Council on the Arts.

Jenkins said the arts council understands that a multi-year restoration of cave structures is important not only for the abbey, but also for Alabama.

“This project has been very well reviewed and researched,” she said. “Ave Grotto is… unprecedented in the state. Safeguarding this artistic environment is essential.

And for the grant to restore the first part of the project, the chapel in the woods, a multi-level review – including approval by the 15-member board appointed by the governor – was only the first of what Jenkins hopes will be an ongoing relationship.

“It was a slam dunk, for us, really,” she said of the council funding the project.

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