Did you know that the world’s largest grotto is in Iowa? And that it’s not the only grotto in the state?
In fact, the Midwest is known for its large collection of man-made grottos, mostly built by German Catholic priests who loved to build concrete shells and decorate them with ornate rocks and minerals. You’ll also notice that many of them started construction between 1928 to 1935, just as concrete was becoming available commercially.
I’m sure that I’m missing some smaller grottos – so please, drop a note in the comments and let me know about the other locations and I’ll add them to the list.
The Shrine of the Grotto of the Redemption, West Bend
Address: 208 1st Ave NW, West Bend, IA 50597
Have you ever promised to do something if your prayers are granted? Paul Dobberstein did just this. During a serious case of pneumonia, he promised to build a shrine to the Blessed Virgin. After recovering, he finished his ordination in the Catholic Church and then set out to fulfill the promise – which initially was Our Lady of Lourdes grotto built in St. Francis Seminary in Wisconsin.
In 1898, he was assigned to Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in West Bend, Iowa. After building a school and purchasing additional property, he started excavating a lake and stockpiling stones, gems, minerals, and fossils. For the next 42 years, Father Dobberstein used concrete to essentially glue the rocks and minerals together into various shrines, walkways, tunnels, caves, and even staircases. Some have referred to the grotto as the 8th wonder of the world. It’s technically nine different grottos and takes up a full city block.
It is officially the world’s largest man-made grotto – and it is open to visit 24 hours a day, although the gift shop and information center have posted hours.
Holy Family Grotto at Mount St. Francis Convent, Dubuque
Address: 3390 Windsor Ave, Dubuque, IA 52001
After his success with the Grotto of the Redemption, Father Paul Dobberstein, started taking requests and even commissions to build other grottos and sculptures. His second most significant grotto is the Holy Family Grotto located on the grounds of the St. Francis Convent in Dubuque.
Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto, Trinity Heights in Sioux City
Address: 2509 33rd St, Sioux City, IA 51108
Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine and Grotto is part of Trinity Heights Outdoor Cathedral. It’s located on the west end of the facility near the 33-foot tall statue of Jesus. There are benches both outside and in the stone shelter, and candles are available for lighting.
Our Mother of Sorrows Grotto at Mt. Mercy University, Cedar Rapids
William Lightner was a contractor working on the Mount Mercy campus in the 1920’s. He had recently converted to Catholicism and started to build the Mother of Sorrows Grotto as a sign of his devotion. He traveled extensively to find the materials for the grotto and then started the construction in 1929. Interestingly, he also got guidance from Father Paul Dobberstein, who created the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend.
Our Lady of Grace Grotto, West Burlington
It was built in 1929 with rocks from the Holy Land, as well as hundreds of local geodes. Inside the grotto is the Blessed Virgin Mary with two seashells, one from the Atlantic Ocean and another from the Pacific Ocean. The vision for the grotto was drawn out on paper by Father M. Kauffman, who then with the help of Father Damian Lavery, built the original grotto.
Shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary, North Buena Vista
Address: Main St, North Buena Vista, IA 52066, past the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church on the left side of Main Street as you head towards the river.
Housed in a bluff surrounding the community of North Buena Vista, Iowa visitors will find a grotto that was built in the late 1930’s during the Great Depression. The local residents used rocks from the area and a 700-pound statue was ordered from Terra Cotto, Germany.
The Sacred Heart Grotto at Immaculate Conception Church, Gilbertville
Address: 311 15th Ave, Gilbertville, IA 50634
The Sacred Heart Grotto was built by the second priest at the Immaculate Conception Church – Father William Cremer. He started in 1945 and finished in 1948. It is located on the west side of the church. In 2022, the grotto was in need of repairs and the church had plan and fundraising already approved. In fact, they were planning to use the same crew that renovated the grotto at Mercy College in Cedar Rapids.
Address: 122 S Main St, Harris, IA 51345
It was built by former Harris postmaster Bud Allen, and was originally located behind the post office, but is now located on Main Street across from the grocery store. The mini grotto contains a church replica, wishing well, castle and stone wall with the 23rd Psalm. Bud used rocks from 40 different states as well as Mexico and Canada.