Father Paul Dobberstein


pastor of the Catholic Church of Saints Peter and Paul in West Bend, Iowa, devoted much of his life to the creation of one of America’s most astonishing and popular devotional shrines. Known as the
Grotto of the Redemption,
the shrine includes seven large caves and numerous stone canopies set within a walled park that isdominated by two artificial hills, one more than forty feet high. Constructed principally of petrified wood and boulders embedded with fossils, as well as stalactites,calcite, quartz crystals, jasper, malachite, turquoise, and other geological wonders, Father Dobberstein’s shrine is an unusually ambitious variation on a phenomenonvirtually ubiquitous in the Catholic world: the replica of the sacred cave. These replicas are in turn part of a larger practice of re-creating the important shrines of theHoly Land, in both the Old and New Worlds, to provide a vivid religious experience for those unable to make the pilgrimage to the Middle East.What sets Father Dobberstein’s work apart from these other replicas, however, is the way he embellished the form, marrying the cave of Christian mysteries with both the Renaissance grotto of natural history specimens and the theatrical aspects of Baroque church architecture. Father Dobberstein’s articles of faith were takenliterally from church teachings, but his choice of materials, gathered on rockhunting expeditions to the Black Hills of South Dakota or the deserts of the Southwest, andhis combinations of forms, including Roman arches, triple-apsed interiors, and highly ornamented col umns and domes, reveal an extraordinary degree of imaginative prowess.Born in 1872 in Rosenfeld, Germany, Dobberstein immigrated to the United States in 1892, and studied for the priesthood at the Saint Francis Seminary inMilwaukee. In May 1897, a month before his scheduled ordination, he fell gravely ill with pneumonia. In prayers to the Virgin Mary, he vowed that if he recovered hewould build a shrine in her honor. He was well enough to be ordained that June; in 1898 he was appointed to his position in West Bend. With the help of his parishioners, he began to amass materials for his shrine; by 1912 he began work on the first artificial cavern, known as the
Grotto of the Trinity,
the interior of whichis encrusted with calcite and stalactites and contains a marble statue of Mary and the infant Jesus. Dobberstein continued working on the
until his death in 1954,enlarging the focus of his project to encompass representations of the Fall of Adam and Eve, of Moses and the Ten Commandments, and of the redemption of humanity through the life and death of Christ.
See also
Environments, Folk; Religious Folk Art
Beardsley, John.
Gardens of Revelation: Environments by Visionary Artists.
New York, 1995.Stone, Lisa, and Jim Zanzi.
Sacred Spaces and Other Places: A Guide to Grottos and Sculptural Environments in the Upper Midwest.
Chicago, 1993