Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
My dad likes to tell this story about a woman from Iowa who traveled to Italy to see the second largest grotto in the world.
A grotto is a natural or artificial cave used as a shrine and often containing statues of saints such as the Virgin Mary. Italy has many famous cathedrals, so it’s not surprising that it would have one of the world’s largest grottoes, too. The woman from Iowa was keen to learn where the largest grotto is and asked her guide if he knew.
He told her she was in luck, because it was located in the United States, and in the Midwest at that, where she was from. He asked her if she had heard of a place called Iowa. Indeed she had!
The woman was dumbstruck to learn the largest grotto in the world was just a few miles from her house in northwest Iowa, and here she was traveling the world to get a glimpse at second place.
My dad told me that story this past weekend when my parents plus my wife and daughter packed into the car and drove to West Bend, Iowa, home of the Shrine of the Grotto of the Redemption. It’s located just 28 miles from my hometown of Pocahontas and is one of the premier tourist attractions in Iowa, garnering more than 100,000 visitors each year.
I had been to the Grotto a time or two in my youth, but I didn’t remember much from those trips other than that my sister Mary got her head stuck in a railing (let that be a lesson to any children reading this).
Visiting the Grotto as an adult allowed me to absorb the enormity of it, its meticulous design and to appreciate the years of work that Father Paul Dobberstein, the German immigrant who started it, put into its construction, which was year-round for 42 years beginning in 1912. The Grotto depicts scenes from the life of Jesus with a series of statues. What’s most interesting about its design are the minerals, fossils, shells and petrified wood used to construct its walls and ceilings. It’s unlike any structure you’ve ever seen before.
The only trouble is that you have to resist the urge to touch the precious stones, which is especially difficult for youngsters like my daughter. I carried her from one garden to the next, and she had fun pointing to the statues of infant Jesus and saying “baby.”
Next to the Grotto are a museum and a gift shop, which were a godsend to us because we went on a day it was 90 degrees.
If you’ve never gone, I’d strongly suggest making the trek to West Bend to visit this impressive shrine. You’ll save lots of money that you would have spent flying to Italy.