This statute inside one of the grottos at the Grotto of the Redemption represents Eve from the book of Genesis in the Bible.
This statute inside one of the grottos at the Grotto of the Redemption represents Eve from the book of Genesis in the Bible.

August 17, 2018

WEST BEND

For more than an hour, we drove along over the rolling hills, next to rows and rows and rows of corn fields. But our destination looked very different.

Finally, we arrived in the small town of West Bend. It didn’t take us long cruising through the main streets of the town to come up to a structure that looked foreign among the small brick and concrete buildings that surrounded it.

Huge stalactite rocks and crystals protruded from walls and structures, the white crystals reminding us of kryptonite, the green crystalline rock found on the planet Krypton that weakens Superman in the DC Comics and “Superman” movies.

Like kryptonite, which is native to another planet, these rocks seemed to be from another world entirely.

At the entrance, the words “Grotto of the Redemption” was etched into the stones and rocks. Beneath the words was a white statute of Jesus holding up his hands as if he was welcoming in his guests.

We knew the grotto was a religious site, but not much more. We saw a lot that day and since learned that West Bend’s grotto has a distinct connection to Carroll — and now, Carroll once again has its own grotto, located at St. Anthony’s Garden View assisted-living facility for residents and visitors to enjoy.

Upon entering the grotto in West Bend, we toured nine separate grottos, which all told different stories from the life of Jesus Christ.

Different sections revealed various figures or stories from the Bible such as Eve from the Book of Genesis, Mary, the mother of Jesus, Joseph and more.

What enraptured us most were all of the stones and gems built into the walls and ceilings of the grotto. The rocks were of every color imaginable and looked too precious to be found in a small Iowa town of about 800 people.

The grotto was like a maze, with little enclaves, a variety of statues and signs to read, and various staircases and levels to explore.

After we explored them all, we made our way to the grotto museum to learn more about the history behind it.

We knew that it was built as a religious site, but besides that, we didn’t know much about the attraction.

We learned that the grotto is often called the “eighth wonder of the world” and that, on average, it has about 100,000 visitors a year.

It was Father Paul Matthias Dobberstein who first began crafting the Grotto of Redemption, according to its website. After immigrating to the U.S. in 1872 from Germany, Dobberstein went to seminary school at St. Francis near Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

After finishing school, he worked as a chaplain at the Sisters of Mount Carmel Hospital in Dubuque before coming to West Bend to serve as the pastor of West Bend SS. Peter and Paul Catholic Church. Dobberstein spent the last 57 years of his life in West Bend, where he began building the grotto.

Along with himself, he hired Matt Szerensce, who helped him form the Grotto of Redemption out of petrified wood, malachite, azurite, agates, geodes, jasper, quartz, topaz, calcite, stalactites and stalagmites.

Together, over the course of about 50 years, they created maze-like caves to tell the story of Jesus of the Nazareth, setting rocks and precious gems into concrete. In 1954, when Dobberstein died, the Grotto of the Redemption covered an entire city block. It’s built completely by hand and is the largest man-made grotto in the world, as well as the largest collection of precious stones together in any one location, according to information from the grotto.

We weren’t sure what to expect as we headed to the grotto. Would it just be a pile of rocks? We weren’t prepared for the massive amounts of beautiful gems and crystal formations we found. It was obvious that years and years went into planning and constructing each of the individual grottos for people from all over the world, religious or not, to come to rural Iowa and admire the intricate details and beauty of the Grotto of Redemption.

It’s worth a visit — it’s open year-round and lit until 10 p.m. Tours are offered, and the site also has a park, cafe, gift shop and museum.

But for people who want an experience closer to home, the grotto built at Garden View is the centerpiece of a calm, soothing grounds area that includes gardens and a one-third-mile walking path.

The grotto was paid for by St. Anthony staff members and dedicated to the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, who were selected by St. Anthony founder Father Joseph Kuemper to run the hospital in the early 1900s.

St. Anthony President and CEO Ed Smith said he’s glad there’s a grotto in Carroll again.

One previously stood at St. Angela Academy, created as well by Dobberstein, who asked the Franciscan Sisters for permission to build a grotto at the academy in the 1920s, according to James F. Kerwin’s “Word Pictures of Early Carroll County.”

Dobberstein built the grotto in pieces at his West Bend workshop before it was assembled in Carroll.

“The Master Architect must have guided the talented priest as he combined copper and amethyst from Lake Superior, shells from the Indian Ocean, coral from California, Florida and Cuba,” Kerwin wrote. “Many in the area gave up some of their coveted rocks to be formed together in homage to God.”

When Kuemper expanded in the ’60s, the grotto was disbanded and the pieces taken back to West Bend, where they now are incorporated into the larger grotto there.

As residents begin to enjoy Carroll’s new grotto, a public appreciation for the nuns will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 26, at the Greteman Center.

“I think reintroducing the grotto and dedicating it to the ministry the Franciscan Sisters have had in the Carroll area is our way, a small way, of honoring them for what they’ve meant to us,” Smith said. “Just the presence of a grotto allows individuals to reflect and contemplate things, and the peacefulness of the gardens in Garden View are really conducive to that, so we just thought, what a nice tribute to Carroll’s heritage but also the individuals that are residing in Garden View itself.”

And for those residents, as well as the Carroll-area residents who visit the spot, the grotto is already popular. Many residents have requested that view when they move into Garden View, St. Anthony Nursing Home Director Barb Corey said.

There’s a huge wow factor when you walk outside that door,” Garden View Director Kari Nuzback said.