I’ve been living in Iowa for the last 10 years and one thing I’ve found is that it’s not exactly a tourist destination. I often find myself looking for things to do. Years ago someone mentioned a grotto at a church and I let it pass. I’m not religious and religious icons and destinations just don’t appeal to me. I’ve admired some things done in the name of religion, such as some of the great cathedrals and paintings but mostly from the perspective that men built such great things and painted such great masterpieces. I do admire skill and perseverance. A local roadside stand, not so much. So with some trepidation I decided that I’d visit this grotto and maybe take some cute pictures and poke some fun at religion. I started by looking up their webpage to make sure I could find it okay and found that they bill themselves as the eighth wonder of the world, which is pretty arrogant. I was hoping I could find some things to poke holes in this claim and maybe bring a little humor into it.
I drove for an hour across some of the flattest land in the states wondering how close to the middle of nowhere I was when I found West Bend, a tiny one-light town that is as unremarkable as all the other tiny one-light towns that dot Iowa. As I pulled into the parking lot I could see the grotto across a small pond and behind the large Catholic Church that sponsored it. There is a museum, theater, café, and gift shop orbiting the grotto and the pond was full of trumpeter swans. Seeing the large conglomerate of stone before me with little white statues here and there I thought that this is what it must look like if god threw up. I walked around the pond and café and when I rounded the corner to see the grotto up close for the first time I did something I don’t recall ever doing before.
I stopped dead in my tracks.
The wall was, well, it was beautiful. I have never seen anything like it in my life. From afar you couldn’t tell but it was inlaid with all colors of quartz, amethyst, pyrites, petrified wood, and many, many other minerals that I couldn’t identify. It glittered, it resonated, it took my breath away. I actually regretted my vomit comment and would have prayed for forgiveness at this point if I actually believed in any god. But this was just the outer wall.
On the side of the café were pamphlets that explained that there were really nine grottos, built over the course of nearly a century, each depicting a scene from the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The main grotto, the Grotto of the Redemption, was the original one, built by Father Dobberstien when he promised the Virgin Mary he would build a shrine in her honor if he successfully recovered from pneumonia, which he did back in 1912. In the winter he made panels of stone in his house and in the summer he assembled them to form a cave, or grotto, for the statue of Mary that he had commissioned from artists in Italy.
However, none of this registered as I turned back to the wall. I walked through the first arch and found myself in the Garden of Eden, with an angel admonishing Adam and Eve for eating the forbidden fruit. It’s not the story, but the presentation that again took my breath away. The Tree of Life was made from petrified wood and broken geodes and crystals again festooned every inch of the scene but not in any random fashion. They formed intricate patterns and told stories of their own. And Eve was so beautiful that I could imagine any man wanting to do anything for her, even risking getting thrown from paradise.
I could go on and on about amethyst crystals bigger than my head, or perfectly formed quartz three feet high, but it’s just no use. It’s just something you have to see. Of course I was snapping pictures like crazy but when I saw the results I knew I could never capture what my eyes saw. Then something started to seep into my consciousness. As I walked with Jesus on the night of his betrayal and saw Mary weeping at the cross, and passed sleeping apostles in the garden it dawned on me why this was all done.
Because a man made a promise. Because a man was so devout to his religion that he labored for 40 years trying to make the most beautiful shrine he could. No, I didn’t feel the presence of any god, I never once felt like praying, but I was absolutely awed and amazed by the sheer artistry and talent and vision that was all around me. A man did this. A human being like any other. It wasn’t that god could do great things, but that man could do great things. It wasn’t god that made this so beautiful, it was the natural process of wood petrifying, of molecules crystallizing, of light refracting, of minerals forming patterns and finally of a skinny little man gathering them up in one place and with what must have been the ultimate OCD from god, meticulously put them all together that made it so beautiful. It inspired me. It made me completely forget the outside world.
I wandered around aimlessly for three hours vowing that if by chance I ever get a visitor that I for sure would make this a must see destination. I went through the museum which had some beautiful examples of every type of rock you could think of. The gift shop was more a Christian supply store and I was only slightly tempted at some shiny things but walked out empty handed. I made a generous donation and even toured the church, itself a wonderful example of architecture and beauty.
It wasn’t easy and in the end I had to call a friend to help talk me down so that I could leave. I was wet and frozen and kicked myself for not visiting on a warm sunny day. I strolled through the Stations of the Cross one last time and still at every turn saw something that I thought was amazing. Twice I had tears in my eyes. Sadly I climbed in my truck and pulled out, the radio silent, and was greeted by the real world full of grain elevators and more corn than the world could ever eat.
I pondered at how religions, although responsible for more and bloodier wars than any other cause on Earth, could inspire men and women to create such beauty. What if every man, instead of killing, hating, and conquering in the name of their god built great things instead? At least one man did, and I admire him for allowing me think of such things.
Father Dobberstein wasn’t looking for fame or fortune, he was simply keeping a promise. I would highly recommend this little place to anyone passing through the Hawkeye state.
As for the website, I have no longer have an objection.