Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures Friends Newsletter, Vo. 1, No. 2, Fall 2003

Midwest Grottos: Continued

While the grotto in West Bend was built to celebrate religion, the other major grottos incorporated patriotism to reflect the sense of pride that the immigrants felt about their new country. The Dickeyville Grotto is another well-known array of grottos, shrines, and gardens. Unlike The Grotto of the Redemption, Dickeyville contains extensive quantities of glass and ceramics, along with natural stones and petrified materials, some gathered from as far away as the Holy Land. Dickeyville is said to contain a cross carved by the first Indian convert of Father Marquette.

Father Mathias Wernerus, a German-born priest who served the parish from 1918 until his death in 1931, is the driving force behind the Dickeyville grotto. Wernerus began his work by constructing a Soldiers’ Memorial in 1920 to honor three men from the parish who lost their lives in World War I. In 1924, he began to expand his vision, and was aided during the years by his parishioners and cousin, Mary Wernerus. The grotto was completed in 1930, and little changed until 1964, when parish priest Father Lambert Marx added concrete and sandstone Stations of the Cross.

Many believe that Dobberstein influenced Wernerus because Werenerus attended the St. Francis Seminary after the small grotto was built, and both priests’ structures feature similarities. However, no written records or original source materials confirm this belief. Wernerus himself wrote, “Many reasons urged me to put up ‘Religion in Stone and Patriotism in Stone.’ The main reason why it was done I could not reveal.”

The St. Phillip Parish Grotto Shrine and Wonder Cave at Rudolph, Wisconsin, is another marvelous site worthy of a visit. It contains almost forty structures, including grottos and shrines to God and country. Unlike Redemption or Dickeyville, however, it is constructed primarily of native rock and is bedecked with mature trees and extensive floral gardens. A unique feature is the Wonder Cave, an enclosed pathway one-fifth of a mile long, with dozens of religious statues and plaques.

This grotto was primarily built by Philip Wagner, who was born in Iowa and went to Europe to study for the priesthood. While there in 1912, he became very ill and visited the Our Lady of Lourdes shrine in France, a well-known healing spot that inspired him. Recalling that in 1950, he wrote, “My health having failed, I prayed devoutly to Mary amidst the quiet and beauty of the place. Should it be restored, I promised to build sometime, somewhere, a shrine in her honor.”

Wagner fulfilled that promise by beginning to build the Rudolph grotto in 1928 and working until his death in 1959. Edmund Rybicki began assisting Wagner as a fourth grader and worked until his death in 1991. Like the others, they let the structure develop intuitively as they worked. While this grotto is not as flashy, its natural beauty is a strong counterpoint to the other two major grottos.

The Paul and Matilda Wegner Grotto in Cataract, Wisconsin, is a smaller grotto built by German Lutheran immigrants next to their farmhouse. The Wegners were transfixed by a visit to the Dickeyville Grotto in 1929. When they returned home, they immediately got down to work. Built primarily by Paul until his death in 1937, and thereafter by his wife until her death in 1942, the Wegner grotto is a stunning sight in the middle of an undeveloped natural landscape.

The Wegners followed Wernerus’s technique of studding concrete with glass and ceramic objects. They began with a decorative fence around the property, ultimately building many more structures, including bird houses, a battleship, and a replica of their 50th wedding anniversary cake. An ecumenical bent can be seen in a mosaic glass church, eight feet by 12 feet. It depicts the Lutheran, Catholic, and Jewish religions, which were considered the three German religions at the time, and uses the legend, “One God, one Brotherhood.”

For those willing to take the time and looking for a little adventure, the Midwest offers a treasure trove of incredible and impressive religious, folk, and outsider art, all lasting legacies of our cultural heritage.

Smith is Assistant Vice Chancellor at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Smith, who has a master’s degree in journalism, considers himself, at best, an amateur grotto aficionado. He and his wife enjoy touring grottos, churches, cemeteries, effigy mound sites, and outsider art and sculptural environments in the Midwest.

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Last updated: August 11, 2003