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The Midwest is blessed with the largest collection of grottos in the world, architectural gems left primarily by German Catholic immigrants who worked without blueprints or written plans.

Their form of folk art — or “outsider” art — reflected the times in which they lived, when illnesses wiped out huge segments of the population. And because concrete was cheap and easily accessible, it became the go-to medium used by these new Americans to express their faith in God and their love of their adopted country.

These zealous artists created everything from elaborate headstones to crucifixes to small roadside chapels and shrines, and we’re lucky enough to be able to enjoy many of them still today with just a few hours of driving.

Grotto of the Redemption

The birthplace of the grotto movement is the Sts. 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 of humankind, from the fall of man to the resurrection of Christ. It is said to be the largest collection of semiprecious stones, minerals and petrified materials in the world.

The grotto was meant as a way for German-born Father 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. Dobberstein began to stockpile massive amounts of fieldstone, rocks and boulders in 1901, and 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 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.

Dickeyville Grotto

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

The Dickeyville Grotto is an array of shrines and gardens, and it features materials gathered from as far away as the Holy Land. Dickeyville is also said to contain a cross carved by the first Native American convert of French missionary Father Jacques Marquette.

In addition to celebrating religion, Dickeyville incorporates symbols of patriotism that reflect the pride immigrants felt about their new country. Father Mathias Wernerus, a German-born priest who served the parish from 1918 until his death in 1931, was 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. The grotto was completed in 1930.

Rudolph Grotto Gardens

The Rudolph Grotto Gardens at St. Phillip Parish in Rudolph, Wis., is another marvelous site worthy of a visit. It contains almost 40 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.

Father Philip Wagner, who was born in Iowa and went to Europe to study for the priesthood, primarily built the grotto. In 1912, he became ill and visited the Our Lady of Lourdes shrine in France, a well-known healing spot that inspired him. Like Dobberstein, he promised to build a shrine to Mary should his health improve, and he fulfilled that vow. Though this grotto is not as flashy, its natural beauty is a strong counterpoint to the other two major sites.

© Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and with support from the Evjue Foundation. Reprinted with permission.