Priest used rocks to tell Christ's story
Spiritual Spinach

Priest used rocks to tell Christ's story


From what I can tell, the Rev. Paul Dobberstein had two great loves in his life.

The first was our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

And the second was rocks.

That’s not to say the Catholic priest didn’t love his parishioners in West Bend, Iowa.

But the priest spent his life using one love — rocks — to serve his greatest love—Jesus.

I learned about Dobberstein when I went with other women from Fremont’s Full Life Church on a trip to The Shrine of the Grotto of Redemption in West Bend.

You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate the beautiful statues depicting Jesus in various stages of his life and death along with those of Christ’s mother and other Biblical figures.

And you don’t have to be an artist or a geologist to admire the intricately depicted scenes of Jesus in the Stations of the Cross or the various types of rocks used to create the grotto — which took 80 years to complete.

A grotto is a small, picturesque, man-made cave and this one began in the heart of a man who wanted to become a priest.

Dobberstein was born in Germany, where he attended a university and took a geology course. Thus formed his love of rocks.

At the same time, he wanted to be a priest, but couldn’t get into the program there so he worked in a bank and studied geology.

When Dobberstein was 20, he had the chance to come to the United States.

It’s said he came in 1892 with just 12 cents in his pocket.

One day, Dobberstein was reading a German-language newspaper when he saw a want ad. An Iowa Bishop wanted German-speaking priests, because a large section of the state had been settled by German immigrants.

Dobberstein answered the ad, was interviewed, accepted and sent to a seminary in Milwaukee, Wis.

It looked like his dream was coming true.

But in 1897 — just two weeks from his ordination — Dobberstein became gravely ill with pneumonia.

Back then, there was no penicillin and his chance of recovery was slim so he prayed — promising to build a shrine if he recovered.

He recovered.

In 1898, he was sent to West Bend, to serve as pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Church, where he’d remain for the entire 56 years of his priesthood.

Dobberstein didn’t get to work on the grotto right away.

He had to build the parish’s membership and a school.

Fourteen years passed before he could start on the grotto in 1912. He was 40 years old.

At first, the grotto was going to be just one structure, but it grew to include nine which tell the story of the fall of man and his redemption through Christ.

The first grotto is called the Grotto of the Trinity. It’s built in three sections representing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It includes a statue of Mary, who appears to be holding baby Jesus out to viewers.

At the top of the Paradise Lost grotto is the statue of an angel with a fiery sword, which I think looks especially stunning at night. It features statues of a meek-looking Eve and Adam, who appears to be looking upward.

And unless pointed out by a tour guide, you could miss the snake made of green-colored rocks.

There’s a sweet scene of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus in the manager with a huge angel blowing a trumpet overhead in The Grotto of Bethlehem.

The Grotto of Gethsemane features a statue of Jesus kneeling in prayer. Near his hands are silk roses with attached tags on which people have written — and left — their prayer requests.

To me, it symbolizes the thought of leaving our concerns in the hands of Christ.

One of the most striking scenes is a statue and cross at the highest point of the grotto. Patterned after Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” the statue shows the crucified Christ in the arms of his mother.

My favorite statue is a masterpiece depicting Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea with the crucified Christ in their arms as they go to place him in the tomb.

What I find remarkable is that the entire sculpture was carved from a single block of marble.

The Grotto of the Resurrection includes the statue of an angel and the words: “He is Risen. He is not here,” and a tender scene of the risen Christ with Mary Magdalene.

Altogether, there are 59 intricately carved statues. Of those, 54 were made of white, Carrara marble in Italy. Dobberstein posed for drawings depicting how he wanted the statues to be positioned.

He never drew any pictures or blueprints of the grotto. He could see what he wanted in his mind and everyone worked from his directions.

“Can you imagine helping somebody build something and you follow the directions you’re given and you have no idea what it’s going to look like until it’s finished?” our tour guide asked.

Oh my. Doesn’t that remind you of our Lord?

As we build our lives don’t we find ourselves following our Lord’s directions — not knowing how everything is going to look?

It’s a matter of trust and why I hold so dear the words of our God in Jeremiah 29:11—“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘Plans to prosper and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

Another thought stayed with me as I learned more about the grotto.

Dobberstein was stockpiling rocks long before he started building it.

When the time came to build the grotto, he’d use a mixture of one part cement and two parts sand into which he’d place stones, coral, sea shells and petrified wood.

He’d travel hundreds of thousands of miles to obtain all sorts of rocks. He joined a network of rock hounds from around the world. And he spoke six languages, so when he read about a rock he wanted, he’d connect with a rock hound who’d ship him the rocks.

Our tour guide said Dobberstein didn’t have to pay for the rocks. Back when he started collecting them, nobody knew they were valuable. They were interested in gold, silver and copper — and the rocks were “throwaways” as far as they were concerned.

I see another parallel.

How many of us have felt like a throwaway? And yet, Christ sees us as priceless and he can polish and position us in a way we could never imagine.

The guide said people let the priest have petrified wood, quartz and crystals, now protected by state or federal laws.

Simply speaking, they’re now seen as important.

The grotto includes beautiful agates — rocks that have been cut in half and polished, revealing shades of color in beautiful patterns.

Aren’t people like that, too? When we get to know them, we see the beautiful layers of color that God has placed in their hearts.

Agates have been brought to the grotto from Brazil, Germany and Madagascar. There’s malachite from Russia and southwest Africa and coral from Hawaii to name a few.

When Dobberstein couldn’t find the right color of stone to create mountain streams like those in Germany, he gathered throwaway Coca Cola bottles made of blue-green-colored glass. He melted down the glass, poured it into molds and after it hardened, broke it into pieces, which he used to create the streams.

He also melted glass and broken crayons to make other “rocks” for the grotto.

When Dobberstein started, he only had one man helping him, parishioner Matt Szerensce, who was 18 when he began working on the grotto and continued until his death at age 85.

Dobberstein worked on the Grotto for 42 years, until he died in 1954 at age 82.

The Rev. Louis Greving came to West Bend in 1946 as assistant pastor. He finished the grotto and stayed on until his own death in 2002, when he was 81.

Dobberstein, Szerensce and Greving did all the stonework for the grotto.

The shrine is on the National Register of Historic Places and is believed to be the largest grotto in the world.

I love the grotto for its beautiful statues, but even more for the lessons it contains.

Tammy Real-McKeighan is news editor of the Fremont Tribune. She writes a weekly spiritual column.


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