Weirdness in West Bend

While I was in northwest Iowa this weekend, I visited the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend. It was…how shall I put this? Bizarre.

When I started writing this blog last year, I put together a short list of things I really wanted to do and see in Iowa, and the Grotto was on that list. It’s very famous, so it just seems like something you should see if you live in Iowa. Kind of a bucket-list item, like the Corn Palace in South Dakota.

The history of this “miracle in stone” – considered by some the Eighth Wonder of the World according to the Grotto’s upbeat website – is this: A Catholic priest, Father Paul Dobberstein, became critically ill with pneumonia, and he prayed to the Virgin Mary that if he survived, he would build a shrine in her honor. Survive he did (not a small thing in the days before modern antibiotics), and he built a monumental structure in West Bend containing nearly 100 train-car loads of rocks, precious and semi-precious gemstones, and seashells.

Work on the Grotto complex began in 1912 and continued for 52 years, built primarily by Dobberstein and a fellow priest. The series of nine grottos each portray a different scene from the life of Christ. It’s said to be 100 feet wide and up to 40 feet high in some places.

It’s interesting, to say the least. I climbed around and took lots of pictures. You can take a guided tour, if you want (given on the hour during peak tourist season for a free-will donation). I did not find it particularly beautiful or artistic, however. It looks to me like the work of a couple of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder who have access to 100 railroad cars worth of rocks. (Oh, and there’s a gift shop and a café to go along with it.)

The Grotto is featured in the television and book series Weird U.S., if that tells you anything.

But do go, if you get the chance. And don’t forget to stop by the world’s largest popcorn ball in Sac City while you’re at it.

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