Father Paul Dobberstein’s Grotto of the Redemption: Art Environment Tour #2

Follow me here. It’s the roaring 20’s. The pandemic is over, and the kids are over at their grandparents. They can’t get in touch with you and won’t be home for a few days. They’re fine, don’t worry. It’s not because they forgot their cell phone charger or because gas is five dollars a gallon. It’s because it’s the 1920s. Those things don’t exist yet, silly. 

Now hold on. So you need a weekend to yourself, obviously. That boss of yours won’t get off your back, and you’ve got kids remember? Plus, you’ve got the whole weekend which is good because you’ll need the whole weekend. Alcohol is banned, and the economy is about to completely collapse. It could take a while before you truly relax.

Speaking of relax, don’t look now but your husband never got rid of that giant pile of rocks in the front yard like he said he would. What are we supposed to do? Drive the horse and buggy around it> Damnit. The economy is going to collapse any minute now, and you never know what is going to be banned next. 

Dobberstein! That’s right, that weirdo has been asking everyone around town for rocks and stones for weeks. That silly billy will take all these damn rocks off my hand for free! Can you believe this guy? Taking rocks off people’s hands for free. Unreal. This is perfect. I’ll drop these shiny rocks off at Dobberstein’s and then be at the nearest bar by tomorrow morning. Plus, these weird-looking rocks will definitely not be admired or cherished by anyone in like one hundred years. No one will ever again have to live through a pandemic or an economic collapse or a crazy political party banning things. Oh Dobberstein you stooge, thank you!

Are you as lost in this time-traveling adventure as I am? Okay, let’s get back to the present day. It’s the roaring 2020s. Everything is totally fine(?), and Father Paul Dobberstein’s ‘The Shrine of The Grotto of the Redemption’ collected everyone’s unwanted rocks for almost forty years, constructing arguably one of the more spectacular visionary folk art environments in the world.

FATHER PAUL DOBBERSTEIN The Shrine of The Grotto of The Redemption (1912-1954)

A brief history lesson. Father Paul Matthias Dobberstein, a German immigrant and Catholic priest born in 1872, came to America in 1893 to be trained in the priesthood in Wisconsin. While studying in seminary, Dobberstein came down with a severe case of pneumonia which nearly killed him. While on his death bed, he promised that if he survived this illness, he would build a shrine in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And that he did.

After being ordained in 1898, Dobberstein was assigned to a frontier village in Iowa just off the Des Moines River known as West Bend. Dobberstein started his priesthood but wasn’t satisfied with just the church. He wanted more for his congregation, and he had a promise to keep. Around the turn of the century, Dobberstein bought the marshland adjacent to the church to build a park and a man-made lake. After his congregation got bored with the park and the lake, Dobberstein announced he would finally begin construction on his promise to God. In 1912 the first of seven Grottos began and continued to evolve, day and night, year-round until 1954.

As interest grew from churchgoers, people all across Iowa, and the entire country, the shrine grew as well. Underneath the millions of rocks, stones, fossils, petrified wood, and more lay metal scaffolding that weaved in and around this small city block. Cemented together to create the beautiful mind-blowing exterior are precious materials from more than a dozen states and a handful of countries worldwide. 

Remember when you were young and not bright and thought things like rocks were cheap? The total estimated value of the world’s largest grotto, depending on who you ask, is between $2 million and $4 million. To name just a few, there are Iowa geodes, dusty quartz from Missouri, Brazilian amethyst crystal, and onyx from Mexico. 

Arriving on trains and trucks from far and wide Dobberstein had people donating to the cause, and he would try and pay people for their precious stones when possible. To name just a few places, you can find rocks from in Dobberstein’s creating: Illinois, Oklahoma, Texas, California, and New Mexico – those would be stalagmites from Carlsbad Cavern donated by Jim White (check this) before it became a National Park in 1930. Did Dobberstein coin the phrase ‘think globally, act locally’?

The diversity in location isn’t the only wide-ranging characteristic of Dobberstein’s miraculous creation. Each completed shrine, seven in total, illustrating the stories of Creation, the Fall of Man, the Resurrection, and the Redemption, are home to some of the finest Italian marble statues of Adam and Eve, Moses, the Virgin Mary, and don’t forget about Jesus. Definitely, the most expensive stone across the entire complex can be found steps away from both melted-down glass bottles colored with crayons and gorgeous stained glass pieces from Germany. Even the great depression didn’t slow down Father Paul Dobberstein and the largest collection of minerals and petrifaction in the world. 

To say this folk art environment is impressive is an understatement. I had been looking forward to my visit for a long time, and it did not disappoint. People from Iowa, you know that state you fly over and is somehow the first caucus for the United States presidential primary elections have mentioned that this may just be the ‘8th Wonder of the World’. Look, I get as excited as any Iowan when Ashton Kutcher wears an Iowa hat to a Lakers game, or Slipknot has a #1 hit, so I had my doubts. And I don’t think I have the power to deem this the ‘8th Wonder of the World’, so I won’t go there. But leaving my Iowa bias aside, this has to be in the conversation. 

At the very least, my trip to The Shrine of The Grotto of Redemption was an experience I won’t forget.

The first thing that came out of my mouth when I stepped on the grounds was “holy shit” (sorry, Father Dobberstein). Everywhere you walked in, the labyrinth-like complex of the environment was more and more mind-boggling. How was something like this even possible? The scale, the array of colors, and the accompanying music on a beautiful Iowa summer day. It couldn’t have been better. 

What struck me most, though, was the group of people that came to visit. Someone once told me that if you visit a cemetery, just do it respectfully. Try not to jump all over the headstones or stomp on flowers, but as long as you are respectful, you’ll be fine. 

I don’t think Father Paul Dobberstein would have minded that I was walking in and out of each grotto with my camera taking photos while whispering “holy shit”, to myself. I don’t think he would have minded the families with children who were touching and climbing on the grotto, although the signs clearly said don’t touch the rocks, please. Dobberstein would have been more than happy to have minded the groups of people clearly having religious experiences, praying to the shrines for forgiveness or health and happiness. And I really don’t think he would have minded the birds making homes inside the cool sunless grottos. 

Father Paul Dobberstein began this project to thank the Lord for keeping him alive. It then evolved into a place for him to talk more about the church and attract more people into his congregation. Whether he knew it or not, with 100,000 visitors a year since its last stone was laid, it quickly evolved into a must-see art environment that whatever spiritual journey you are on, will make it hard for you to leave without feeling something. 

Personally, I have had a pretty standard relationship with religion. I attended a Presbyterian church my entire life. I was confirmed in high school, not by my own choosing but without much protest. It was important and still is to my family, and other than missing some kickoffs to football games on Sunday, I didn’t see it being too big of a problem. As everyone discovers once your parents finally stop paying for your cellphone bill and insurance at the age of 26, you can start doing your own thing and having your own beliefs. Do I believe in religion? Do I not believe in religion? It wasn’t until I met my wife who convinced me to go to a congregation that welcomed everyone, no matter who they were, who they loved, or who they believed in – Trinity Church of Austin: they really mean it! – that I was starting to feel better about the mystery that is religion. 

It was tough to not feel religious after traveling through an environment that was intent on sharing that message. While I took dozens of photos of Mary, of Jesus, and dozens of crosses, I felt like I should feel religious. It’s unclear to me whether or not I am fighting it because that’s who I am or if Dobberstein’s creation worked. Whatever you believe or don’t believe, that’s your prerogative, and I’m here for it. What I do know though, is that Father Paul Dobberstein and his remarkable man-made visionary folk art environment, for at least an hour on a hot June day in Iowa, made me believe in something.

Maybe it was the power of art. Maybe it was God. Holy shit.

As always, thanks to Narrow Larry for being an invaluable resource on all things Art Environments and many thanks to Mary for all the great info and wonderful tour of the Grottos.

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Published by marv

An artist/curator of outsider art and folk artwork, specializing in the marketing, buying and selling, promoting, educating, and storytelling of non-conforming artists.

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