Priest’s vision has inspired awe for 100 years at West Bend’s Grotto

by Phil Monson

Nestled among the farm fields of north central Iowa is a sacred shrine many have labeled the Eighth Wonder of the World – a geological and engineering marvel – a miracle in stone – the Grotto of the Redemption.

Located in West Bend, a community of some 800 persons located 20 miles southwest of Algona on Highway 15, the Grotto is a two and a half hour drive north of Des Moines. It has stood the test of time for nearly 100 years and has served as a pilgrimage for thousands of tourists who have converged on this rural Iowa marvel each year.

During the height of the summer tourist season, roughly 4,000 visitors visit the Grotto each month. In 2010, all 50 states were represented on the registry, along with visitors from 21 different countries. All have come to take in the Grotto, a vast collection of minerals and stone, petrified wood, stalagmite, jasper, malachite and quartz crystals. Italian Mosaic and Carrara marble statues adorn the structure.

It is the largest man-made grotto in the world, comprised of nine separate grottos, each depicting a scene in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The Grotto is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Grotto of the Redemption is the inspiration and lifelong work of Father Paul Dobberstein, a Catholic priest who began constructing the Grotto in 1912. Father Dobberstein dedicated 42 years of his life to the monument, laboring year round as he set ornamental rocks into concrete.

Father Dobberstein spent the bulk of his life in Iowa. After he was ordained a priest, West Bend was his first and only parish.

Paul Matthias Dobberstein was born in Rosenfeld, Germany, on September 21, 1872. Part of his education came at the University of Deitsche-Krone in Germany. At the age of 20, Dobberstein immigrated to America and entered the seminary of St. Francis near Milwaukee to prepare for the priesthood. It was there he began to show signs of unusual artistic ability.

After completion of his studies for priesthood at St. Francis, Dobberstein was ordained on June 30, 1897. For one year he served as chaplain for the Sisters of Mount Carmel Hospital in Dubuque. He was then appointed the pastor of West Bend Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church.

A near-death experience with pneumonia provided the inspiration for Dobberstein to create the Grotto, according to Darcie Kramer, executive director of the Grotto.

“Right before he was ordained, he got pneumonia. At that time there was no cure for it. He prayed to God and to the Blessed Virgin Mary to intercede for him for the grace of health. He said if he was healed, he would build a shrine in Mary’s honor,” said Kramer.

“This is a compilation of nine different grottos. The first one he built was the shrine to Mary, fulfilling his promise. It’s also known as the Grotto of the promise, Mary’s Grotto or Trinity Grotto.

“As people came, they were so amazed that they left donations and he felt compelled to keep building. It just kept going from there. It was 80 years of work from when the Grotto was started to when Father Greving stopped. We’re still working on completing it by purchasing statues that were a part of his vision.