Grotto Of The Redemption – West Bend, Iowa
This is a complex of nine different grottos in West Bend, Iowa, each one portraying a different scene from the life of Christ. The fourteen Stations of the Cross are also depicted. The grottos were built using stones and gems from all over the world. It was started in 1912 and now covers nearly a whole city block. The materials used in its construction are considered to be the world’s most complete man-made collection of minerals, fossils, shells, and petrifications in one place. There is a gift shop and restaurant on the premises.
The story of the beginning of the construction of the grotto should be told before visiting the grotto to get the most out of this amazing piece of worship.
Paul Matthias Dobberstein was born in Rosenfeld, Germany on September 21, 1872. He received part of his early education at the University of Deitsche-Krone in Germany. When Paul was 20 years old he immigrated to America. On coming to America he entered the Seminary of St. Francis near Milwaukee to prepare for the Priesthood. He completed his studies for the Priesthood at St. Francis Seminary and was ordained there on June 30th, 1897. For one year he served as chaplain for the Sisters of Mount Carmel hospital in Dubuque. Then when the Archdiocese of Dubuque was divided and Sioux City jurisdiction was formed he was appointed the pastor of West Bend Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church and remained there in that capacity for the rest of his life. During fifty-seven years he was counselor, instructor, and leader to the parishioners of St. Peter and Paul’s.
Father Dobberstein, the builder and creator of the grotto, became critically ill with pneumonia. As he fought for his life he prayed to the Blessed Virgin Mary (the Mother of God) to intercede for him for the grace of health. He promised to build a shrine in her honor of he lived. He completed his studies for the Priesthood at St. Francis Seminary and was ordained there on June 30th, 1897.
For over a decade he was stockpiling rocks and precious stones. The actual work of giving permanence to his promise began to take shape in 1912. The Grotto celebrates being 100 years old in 2012.
Dobberstein had an invaluable coworker at the Grotto. Matt Szerensce, whom Dobberstein apparently referred to occasionally as “my good right arm” began working with the priest as a young man. Graduating from high school in 1912, Szerensce signed on as full-time grotto collaborator, a career move ultimately resulting in fifty-two years of intense labor.
One of the most amazing things about the Grotto at West Bend is the great tenacity of purpose the builder displaying in carrying out his plans. Indeed, it is the largest known accomplishment of it’s kind anywhere in the world. It is 85 by 155 feet at its base and 40 feet tall at the tip of the cross of Calvary. The replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta alone, which depicts Mary holding the crucified body of her son, cost more than $2,200 in 1955. It’s placed at the grotto’s summit.
Father Dobberstein was laid to rest in the parish cemetery one-half mile west of the Grotto. The grave marker reads “Father P. M. Dobberstein, 1872-1954″.
After forty-two years as priest, spelunker, and grotto builder extraordinaire, Father Dobberstein passed the torch to Szerensce and Greving. Though he fully believed in the radiating spiritual power of his work, he may never have imagined the magnitude of his influence.
Matt Szerensce continued to work on the Grotto until his retirement in 1959.
Some 100,000 tourist come to see the Grotto annually. One of those visitors was Walt Disney, who thought he might be able to duplicate Dobberstein’s achievement on a bigger stage but realized, once he actually saw the Grotto, he quickly realized he was looking at a one-of-a-kind attraction.
West Bend is a town of fewer than 800 people who host the visitors year after year.
Free camping is permitted on the grounds.
Admission – None (donations are accepted)
Directions – 2 blocks west of State Highway 15 on First Avenue, NW in West Bend, Iowa 50597
Hours – dawn – dusk, daily; 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., daily, June 1 – October 15 (guided tours depart on the hour)
Credit Cards – None