‘Pictures don’t do it justice’ - Grotto of the Redemption shares Christ’s story in breathtaking stone structures

Updated: Sep. 18, 2023 at 6:00 PM CDT
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WEST BEND, Iowa (KTIV) - In Palo Alto, County Iowa, tucked away in the small town of West Bend, sits the 8th wonder of the world.

“Pictures don’t do it justice,” said Grotto custodian Bruce Helleseth, “If you’re not here live, it’s not the same. I get the honor of trying to take care of it and make it last so that people can keep coming for years and years to come.”

The Grotto of the Redemption is a large, breathtaking structure found in the middle of West Bend and is often called the Miracle in Stone. It’s the story of the life of Christ.

“Father Dobberstein, when he came here in 1900, had quite a vision,” said board member Joe Montag. “He had been sick, and he said, if he recovered, he would build a shrine and as you can see, he did.”

Father Paul Matthias Dobberstein came to West Bend in the late 1800s and for over a decade, stockpiled rock and stone. In 1912, the first stones were laid, and the Grotto of the Redemption was born. The Grotto was built entirely by hand and from Father Dobberstein’s vision, not from a blueprint. Petrified wood, precious stones, and faith in his vision led to what draws tens of thousands of visitors to West Bend each year.

“It brings us together,” said Gary Weber. “This is why he built it in one little place right in the middle of nowhere because he wanted everybody to come in one section. So could everybody see it.”

Gary Weber is a familiar face at the Grotto. The West Bend native has been working here for over 50 years. “When I first started, I was six years old and lived right across the street from it. And my dream was just to work here all my life.”

At just 6 years old, Weber began his journey with The Grotto with a dustpan and a broom. And he’s been here ever since.

“It’s a passion,” Weber said, “and I’ll keep at it until I can’t go anymore.”

The Grotto has grown with Weber. He has helped build, expand and maintain the extraordinary creation, made up of nine separate Grottos, each depicting its own story. For Weber, there is one that draws him in.

“I think Mary’s grotto would be because that’s the heavens above. That’s one of the most prettiest places,” he said. “And so this is what is the most important part of my life right here.”

The Grotto shares space with the Catholic Church and school, but it isn’t just for those of the Catholic faith.

“Father Dobberstein when he built it, he said no religion,” Weber explained. “He said anybody, it doesn’t matter who you are, what walk of life you are or what color you are or whatever, he says, we’re all one great big grotto family. And every time you come into it, you’re part of it.”

“People come and they may not be Catholic, they may maybe other faiths,” said Montag, “but it’s the same message.”

The Grotto has withstood Iowa’s harshest storms, a reminder of the dedication in its creation.

“The Grotto itself, it’s an amazing structure in that in our climate it is still standing,” said Helleseth, “but there is a lot of stuff that happens to it just because we have the freeze-thaw cycle, and it’s all concrete and rock.”

Concrete and rock that is a beacon of hope and faith in West Bend, with a simple reminder within its walls.

“Enjoy life, because life is too short,” said Weber in front of the Grotto. “We need to come together as one big nation. And you know, with people coming to the Grotto, that does it right here.”

For Weber, the Grotto has become his life’s purpose, ensuring that its story, the story of Christ, lives on in West Bend for generations to come.

“The next generation will take care of it. And us three, if I go up where Father Grieving and Father Dobberstein is now, when the time comes, we’ll all be watching down,” Weber said. “I will never stop watching over this place, won’t ever stop and quit working here. We will always be part of it. No matter what.”

The Grotto is open year-round and there is no admission to walk through, visit the museum, or any other buildings on site, it’s strictly free-will donation.

To learn more about the Grotto of the Redemption and its history, visit the website here.