Pilgrimage to Iowa grotto: A spiritual and geological experience

| Susan Klemond | March 13, 2020 | 0 Comments

Statues depict the fall of Adam and Eve in the Shrine of the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, Iowa. COURTESY SHRINE OF THE GROTTO OF THE REDEMPTION

John and Natalie Sonnen have seen many Catholic shrines, but when the St. Paul couple visited the Shrine of the Grotto of the Redemption in northern Iowa on their way home from a convention last September, they were particularly impressed.

“It was something I was not expecting at all,” said Natalie Sonnen, referring to the series of nine man-made grottoes encrusted with precious and semiprecious stones from around the world chronicling Christ’s life. “It was really stunning and completely original.”

“It’s little pieces of the whole planet,” John Sonnen said. “There is a theme: It’s redemption and beauty, but also nature. That’s what makes it such a unique sacred space.”

He appreciated the shrine’s Stations of the Cross, which ascend a hill to Calvary. “To be able to pray and make your way through the stations and end at the top, it’s just very cleverly done.”

During their afternoon at the shrine located about 180 miles from Minneapolis in West Bend, Iowa, the 40-something parishioners of All Saints in Minneapolis toured the shrine and adjacent church, prayed and took pictures.

Designed and built largely by a German immigrant priest during the first half of the 20th century, the Grotto of the Redemption attracts 50,000 pilgrims and visitors annually to view the salvation story from the Fall to the Resurrection told with rocks, minerals and statues.

Pilgrims can view the shrine, museum and the parish church of Sts. Peter and Paul, which also houses a grotto, within a two-city-block area in the town of 700. The shrine is open year-round at no charge, and the church offers regular Mass and confession times, said Andy Milam, marketing and public relations coordinator.

A shrine owned by the Diocese of Sioux City, the Grotto of the Redemption is the largest man-made grotto in the world and appears on the National Register of Historic Places, Milam said

The shrine depicts the Trinity, St. Michael, Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden of Eden, the Ten Commandments, Christ’s birth, the Sermon on the Mount, Gethsemane, the Stations of the Cross, Calvary, Jesus’ entombment and the Resurrection.

“From (the empty tomb) we understand salvation, and that’s how it’s told, which is the last key to the whole thing,” Milam said.

A West Bend pastor, the late Father Paul Dobberstein, began building the shrine in 1912, partly to fulfill his promise to the Blessed Virgin after recovering from pneumonia.

But “the real reason he (built the grotto) is because he loved people, and he wanted to bring God’s story through the Incarnation so everyone could experience it,” Milam said.

Drawing from his family’s stone masonry background and his study of geology, Father Dobberstein and an assistant collected rocks and precious stones, sometimes hauling carloads from South Dakota and other places around the country.

The grottoes are made of concrete slabs covered with thousands of rosettes, which are larger stones with smaller stones cemented around them. Precious stones including jasper, calcite, quartz and amethyst are incorporated with more common stones. Petrified wood, stalactites and stalagmites are also used.

Father Dobberstein set the most fragile precious stones in the church, including a 300-pound Brazilian amethyst. He worked on the shrine while building and running the parish and school until his death in 1954. His successors built two more grottoes outside.

Ten volunteers regularly restore the grottoes from erosion, resetting loose rocks and rosettes that come off during winter freezing and thawing. But Father Dobberstein left no blueprints or notes for expansion, Milam said.

The Sonnens hope to bring their 7-year-old daughter to the shrine to see Father Dobberstein’s work.

“Just imagining him there building that place for 40 years and putting in every single little stone,” Natalie Sonnen said. “And every stone is placed with forethought. It’s ordered according to color or shape or texture or the different kind of rock that it is. This man’s devotion was incredible, and that’s what struck me and inspired me.”

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Category: Retreats