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

Grottos of the Midwest:
Religion and Patriotism in Stone

Photo courtesy of the Grotto of Redemption.  Atop the 40 foot mountain of Calvary is the empty cross that once held Jesus. Beneath it is a replica of Michelangelo's "Pieta", the lifeless body of Jesus rests in His mothers arms.
Atop the 40-foot mountain of Calvary is the cross that once held Jesus. Beneath is a replica of Michelangelo's "Pieta," the lifeless body of Jesus in His mother's arms. Photo courtesy of Grotto of the Redemption.

The Midwest is blessed with a fascinating legacy of religious structures created primarily by German immigrants. Sprinkled throughout this part of the country are cemeteries with elaborate headstones and crucifixes, small roadside chapels and shrines, bathtub Virgin Marys, and spectacular tall-spired Catholic and Lutheran churches with detailed stained-glass windows and ornately carved wooden altars.

But the real architectural gems stemming from the immigrants may be the incredible religious grottos of the Midwest, which are considered among the most important folk or “outsider” art environments in the United States.

The Midwest is home to the largest concentration of grottos in the world. They are derivations of a European tradition that priests, primarily German Catholics, brought with them to the new country. Grottos reflect the times in which they were first built: when illnesses swept the world and wiped out huge segments of the population. The first major grotto, for example, was built by a priest who promised to erect a shrine should he survive his illness. The grotto builders were not schooled in architecture or any formal art tradition. Rather, the availability of inexpensive concrete at the turn of the nineteenth century made it possible for them to create incredible structures, without using blueprints or written plans.

Imagine a structure 25 feet tall, 30 feet wide and 25 feet deep embedded with thousands and thousands of pieces of sparkling glass and ceramics, shells, marbles, minerals, rocks, petrified wood — and even doorknobs. The Dickeyville Grotto on the grounds of the Holy Ghost Church in southwestern Wisconsin offers this awe-inspiring sight. And, like the two other major grottos in the Midwest, Dickeyville is actually a series of grottos and shrines.

For those who visit the major grottos, guides conduct organized tours during the summer months, and gift shops offer booklets that explain the history of the grottos, written by the people who built them. For those who are not able to see the grottos firsthand, visiting libraries (such as the State of Wisconsin Historical Society Library) or searching the Internet will have to do. Along with a number of good websites, two scholarly works do an excellent job of describing these unusual structures:

Sacred Places and Other Spaces: a Guide to Grottos and Sculptural Environments in the Upper Midwest, by Lisa Stone, a folklorist and curator, and Jim Zanzi, an Art Institute of Chicago professor; and Dickeyville Grotto: The Vision of Father Mathias Wernerus, by Susan Niles, professor of anthropology and a folklorist at Lafayette College.

More books and websites devoted to grottos

The birthplace of the grotto movement is no doubt the Saints Peter and Paul Church in West Bend, Iowa, home to The Grotto of the Redemption. This “Mother of all Grottos” takes up an entire city block and contains nine contiguous grottos that illustrate the story of the Redemption, from the Fall of Man to the Resurrection. It is said to be the largest collection of semiprecious stones, minerals, and petrified materials in the world, and it valued at $4.3 million. It should be seen at night as well as during the day.

The grotto was meant as a way for German-born Paul Dobberstein to give thanks. Dobberstein, who came to the United States in 1893 to study for the priesthood at St. Francis Seminary near Milwaukee, suffered a severe case of pneumonia. Should he get well, he promised to build a shrine to honor the Blessed Virgin. While the Grotto of the Redemption is the culmination of that promise, a small stone grotto honoring “Our Lady of Lourdes” was built at the seminary in 1894, and some people also attribute it to Dobberstein.

As parish priest at Saint Peter and Paul’s Church, Dobberstein began to stockpile massive amounts of fieldstone, rocks, and boulders in 1901, but he did not begin to build in earnest until 1912. He continued work on the grotto until his death in 1954. Dobberstein attributed the grotto tradition to the Middle Ages, when shepherds attending their flocks in the hills sought refuge from storms in natural grottos, or caves. There, they adorned the interiors with holy pictures and crucifixes, placing them over small altars to give the appearance of a church sanctuary.

Father Dobberstein, as someone educated in geology, knew his rocks and minerals. He learned to embed his colorful minerals into concrete panels and then assemble them to form many shrines and grottos. Matt Szerensce assisted Dobberstein, starting in 1912 and continuing until his death in 1959. Together the men made frequent trips to the Black Hills and elsewhere, excavating railroad carloads of rocks, minerals, and precious stones. Father Louis Greving, who was assigned to the parish in 1946, also helped complete the grotto, working until his recent retirement. Because Dobberstein was also commissioned to construct many smaller grottos for Catholic churches and convents in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois, his handiwork can be seen in small towns around the Midwest.

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Last updated: August 11, 2003