HANCEVILLE, Ala. — A documentary about the diminutive Bro. Joseph Zoettl and his miniature creations at Ave Maria Grotto will be shown larger than life at Wallace State Community College’s Burrow Center for Fine and Performing Arts at 7 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 12.
“Brother Joseph and the Grotto” is described as a “true fairytale” about the Bavarian native, who built a miniature city of famous landmarks out of recycled materials on the grounds of St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman. “Brother Joseph had a stepmother, took a long journey, got a new name, conducted a superhuman feat, lived in the woods, was “protected” by a godmother, and more – all features of classic fairy tales,” according to a synopsis of the film.
The film was written and directed by veteran documentary-filmmaker Cliff Vaughn of Red Clay Pictures out of Nashville, Tenn. Vaughn was inspired to do the film from Kate Campbell’s song “Ave Maria Grotto.” He also has a background in history and cultural studies. His sister, Carol Ann Vaughn Cross, served as the producer on the film and is the head of Red Clay Pictures’ Birmingham office.
“One of our first screenings was at Samford University,” said Vaughn. “We had a packed house with more than 100 in attendance. It was lots of fun.” The film’s premiere screening was held at St. Bernard Abbey.
Vaughn’s research for the film began in 2011, when he traced Brother Joseph’s entry into the United States through Ellis Island in 1892. He also uncovered a 1946 newsreels segment by Paramount Pictures, unpublished manuscripts by monks at St. Bernard Abbey, and Brother Joseph’s personal album of more than 300 postcards from his family members in Germany. The Abbey provided Vaughn with extensive access to its archives for research and access to the Abbey’s grounds for shooting scenes of the film.
Among those interviewed for the film is Campbell, whose song inspired the film; Bro. Augustine Campion, Abbot Cletus Meagher and Father Marcus Voss, all of St. Bernard Abbey; Leo Schwaiger, who took over care of the Grotto after Brother Joseph’s death; Julie Sears, widow of longtime Ave Maria Grotto staffer Monroe Sears; author Ruth Beaumont Cook; and professor Wayne Flynt.
Through interviews, re-enactments and illustrations, the film chronicles Brother Joseph’s life, from his beginnings in Bavaria as a boy named Michael, to his arrival in the United States as a teen after the death of his mother, his service to the monastery as a brother, and to his building of a small stone grotto to honor the Virgin Mary in which he placed miniature buildings he made out of concrete and recycled materials. That paved the way for a larger grotto in the Abbey’s old stone quarry and more miniatures.
The grotto was opened to the public in 1934, with Brother Joseph working the next 25 years to add more miniatures that became known as the “sermons in stone.” Today, Ave Maria Grotto is one of the state’s leading tourist attractions.
The viewing of the film is free and open to the public. Vaughn will be in attendance and will have copies of the film and other materials on hand for purchase. For more information about the movie, visit www.brotherjosephmovie.com. For more information about Wallace State, visit www.wallacestate.edu or call 256.352.8000.