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.
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.
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.