Grottos of the Midwest: Religion and Patriotism in Stone

By Peyton Smith

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 nvironments 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.

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.

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.

Published 2003 by the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures. Do not reprint without permission.