The church, square and clunky on the outside, is like a geode. In contrast to the dull exterior, the interior glows with suffused golden light. This gentle light falls from tall narrow windows of yellow-gold glass and is reflected by the pale marble walls and soaring arches like the ribs of some giant graceful whale. The sense of entering into light lifts one’s mind and soul to worship God.
A crucifix hangs above the sanctuary with muted Sienna browns, blues, and golds. Three rings symbolizing the Holy Trinity — one above and two overlapping below — look like an abstract depiction of a monk praying.
As I enter St. Bernard Abbey church, I follow three sisters in traditional habits and feel transported to a moment outside of time. The Mass, as a sacrifice and celebration, is such a moment. At each Mass, we literally are there at the Last Supper in anticipation of Christ offering Himself on the cross, in a moment that is outside of all time and connects us — past, present and future – to the mystical reality of His Presence and His Love. The unanticipated beauty inside this Abbey helped me enter into that beautiful mystery. It is a tremendous grace to refocus on what is happening in and through the Mass, as I sometimes through familiarity forget my awe and take it for granted.
The Abbey was built in the late nineteenth century to serve German Catholics who had emigrated to Alabama. It houses a retreat and conference center, and a vibrant community of monks whose voices can be heard at the daily liturgies in the Abbey Church.
On the grounds of the Abbey is Ave Maria Grotto, a whimsical and touching series of models of shrines, religious and historic sites, and a few drawn from fairy tales. The Grotto is the life’s work of Brother Joseph Zoettl, a Benedictine monk who spent nearly seventy years at the Abbey. There’s a movie about his life linked to the Ave Maria Grotto website.
Originally from Germany, Brother Joseph with painstaking care constructed and decorated over a hundred remarkably detailed models using bits of colored glass, common household items, rosary beads, marbles and broken plates. This charming collection of miniatures, scattered throughout a park that used to be the abbey quarry, is nestled within small hills and luxuriant foliage incorporated into the design. My favorites were the replicas of traditional roadside shrines found in the countryside in Germany and France.
The day I visited the Grotto many families were present. From small children to the elderly, all seemed delighted by the tiny buildings. This is a great way to combine learning about the architecture and history of the Church with a fun walk up and down hills. It is definitely worth stopping here as you explore Alabama’s rich religious heritage. If you can’t make it in person, take a look at the website for more information. There’s a slideshow of images I’ll post soon on the Tin Can Pilgrim Facebook page as well.
St. Bernard Abbey and Ave Maria Grotto are at 1600 St. Bernard Drive S.E., Cullman, AL 35055-3057 (approximately an hour north from Birmingham and an hour south of Huntsville).
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