Joseph Zoettl

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Joseph Zoettl

Joseph Zoettl (born Michael Zoettl January 24, 1878 in Landshut, Bavaria; died October 15, 1961 in Cullman) was a Benedictine monk and the creator of the Ave Maria Grotto at St Bernard's Abbey in Cullman.

Zoettl, the son of a Bavarian brewer, was enfeebled by heart palpitations and a Europe-wide flu epidemic in 1891. He emigrated to the United States the following January, recruited as a young teenager to study at St Bernard's College, run by the monastery in Cullman. After crossing the Atlantic aboard the Suavia, he was brought to Alabama and put to work helping construct new buildings for the college. Injured during the work, he focused on his studies and took his vows in 1897. For the next several years he served as a housekeeper to priests in various Benedictine missions.

Stooped from an injury received while doing construction work for the monastery, he was put in charge of maintaining the abbey's power plant after 1911. The work was tedious, often occupying him through 17-hour days, and even making him late for Sunday mass. To occupy his mind in his spare time, Zoettl began constructing small shrines and models of religious landmarks.

Zoettl statue at Ave Maria Grotto

Visitors to the abbey were always given a tour of the sculptures in the garden, and soon they became a source of income as Father Dominic Downs peddled souvenir statuary to visitors. In 1932 he began work on the centerpiece "Ave Maria Grotto" in the abbey's hillside garden, where his other miniatures were to be relocated. Zoettl was honored at its dedication on May 17, 1934. He continued to add to the collection until 1958, retiring after completing a replica of the Basilica in Lourdes, France.

Zoettl died at the abbey's infirmary in 1961. He was buried in the community's cemetery. A bronze portrait sculpture of him by Ira Chaffin was dedicated in the gardens in 2007.


  • Nailes, Bill (October 16, 1961) "Bell tolls for creator of Ave Maria Grotto". Birmingham News
  • Morris, John ( ) Miniature Miracle: A Biography of Brother Joseph Zoettl, O. S. B.. Cullman: St Bernard Abbey
  • Risen, Clay (August 14, 2002) "Joseph Zoettl’s Grotto" The Morning News
  • Beal, Timothy K. (2006) Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press ISBN 9780807010631

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