So many beautiful monuments to our faith came about as a result of promises that were made after prayers were answered. The Grotto in Oregon is one example, as is the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore, which was built after a Catholic businessman’s building was spared from a fire that nearly leveled all of Baltimore.
West Bend, Iowa’s proudest and most famous landmark, the Shrine of the Grotto of the Redemption, was created in thanksgiving for the life of its creator: Father Paul Matthias Dobberstein. Newly emigrated to the United States from Germany and freshly matriculated into the seminary, young Paul Dobberstein fell ill with pneumonia. As the story goes, he was near death and made a promise to the Blessed Mother: If she would ask her Son to let him live, he would build a shrine in her honor.
He recovered from his illness, and shortly after he was ordained a priest, Father Dobberstein was assigned to be pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in West Bend. For the next 14 years, he gathered materials: agate, amethyst, and azurite; drusy quartz and petrified wood. Mounds of rocks and precious stones of all kinds gave Father Dobberstein what he needed to build his magnum opus.
From the very beginning, Father Dobberstein knew he wanted to create a grotto that told the story of man’s redemption. From man’s fall in the Garden of Eden to Jesus’ resurrection, he wanted to share it all. Without any background in art, architecture, or construction, Father Dobberstein built without blueprints, creating as he went. He collected rocks of all kinds, but kept an eagle eye out for precious stones, which he used to make the grotto as beautiful as possible. He was dedicating it to the Queen of Heaven and Earth, after all, so it had to be special.
Father Dobberstein spent the rest of his life building this shrine — when he wasn’t ministering to his flock, of course — and he was given many, many years to do so. When he finally laid down his trowel at 7:25 p.m. on July 14, 1954, he was 82 years old. As the grotto’s website says, “It was as if God waited until the last ruddy rays of the setting sun had shed the last warm friendly rays over the twinkling towers of his Grottos and then called the tired artist home from his life’s work.”
But there was still plenty of work left on the grotto, and Father Louis Greving picked up the trowel where Father Dobberstein left off, with the help of Matt Szerensce, who began working with Father Dobberstein as a young man. Szerensce worked on the grotto until he retired in 1959. Father Greving continued to build and care for the grotto for 50 years. He died in 2002. Today, the grotto is a magnificent site, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
The Shrine of the Grotto of the Redemption presents the fundamentals of the Christian faith with a combination of stones and statues that stretch across a city block, forming a series of smaller grottos.
The Trinity Grotto was the first grotto Father Dobberstein built, and it took him five years to finish. In the center stands a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. This grotto is mostly made of calcite from a cave in South Dakota, and consists of three half circles, symbolizing the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Above the entrance to this grotto is a statue of Jesus and his Sacred Heart.
The Garden of Eden Grotto features an angel barring the entrance as Adam and Eve cower below. A plaque dedicated to the Immaculate Conception foreshadows the woman whose “yes” will bring about mankind’s salvation, just as Eve’s “yes” brought sin into the world.
The Grotto of the Ten Commandments features a statue of Moses presenting the Ten Commandments. Two statues of Jesus and a young man illustrate the biblical story of the rich young man who asks Jesus what he must do to have eternal life. “Follow the Commandments,” Jesus says. “I have,” says the young man. “Then sell everything you have and follow me,” Jesus replies, but that is too much for the young man to hear.
The Grotto of Bethlehem contains statues narrating the story of Jesus’ birth. This grotto is made of 65 tons of petrified wood from Montana and the Dakotas. The Grotto of Nazareth shows what life might have been like for Jesus as a young boy growing up. The walls are made almost entirely of white quartz, symbolizing the purity of the Holy Family.
Outside the grottos are sections dedicated to Jesus’ ministry and passion, such as the Sermon on the Mount, where the Eight Beatitudes are written in stone next to a statue of Jesus. The Garden of Gethsemane features a statue of Jesus in Agony, with Peter and John asleep nearby. And here’s something you don’t see often: a statue of Judas, bag of coins in hand, sneaks around the corner ready to betray his Lord with a kiss.
The 14 Stations of the Cross are illustrated with imported Venetian mosaics that are inlaid into small stone baldachins made by Father Dobberstein. The first 11 stations are made of brown jasper, symbolizing the darkness of Christ’s suffering, while the last three stations are made of white stone, symbolizing the pure sacrifice of the Lamb of God. The 13th station — Jesus taken down from the cross — features a pieta statue similar to Michelangelo’s erected at the highest point of the grotto. A large piece of petrified wood is inlaid below the cross. The last station, the entombment of Jesus, shows Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus lovingly placing the body of Jesus into a tomb. The statues were all carved of a single block of Italian marble.
A few other statues dot the landscape, including one of Father Dobberstein with a trowel in one hand and a rock in another. The property also has a museum and a large pond next to a playground for children.
This beautiful site would be a perfect place to stop in the middle of a cross-country trip or as a final destination. It’s a great opportunity to witness how the gratitude and hard work of one man continues to touch the lives and hearts of thousands of visitors each year.
For more information about the Shrine of the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, Iowa, visit WestBendGrotto.com. Other sacred sites in the area include the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier in Dyersville, Iowa, New Melleray Abbey in Peosta, Iowa, Conception Abbey in Conception, Missouri, and the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Learn more about making pilgrimages close to home and find more sacred sites like this one here.