- Cullman, Alabama

Top News

May 3, 2013

New documentary to focus on Grotto’s Bro. Joseph (With Trailer)

It all started with a song.

Documentary filmmaker and historian Cliff Vaughn had visited Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman as a child, but never thought much about the place until he heard singer-songwriter Kate Campbell’s tune “Ave Maria Grotto,” which was inspired by the life of Bro. Joseph Zoettl.

Bro. Joseph was an early-20th-century monk who spent his life creating the meticulously detailed miniature village at the Grotto, carving out what would eventually become one of the most popular niche tourist attractions in Alabama.

Zoettl used stones, cement, marble and other materials to create replicas of Jerusalem, Rome and other biblical scenes at the Abbey. The grotto was dedicated in 1934 and a life-size statue of the German monk was dedicated at the site in 2009.

But, instead of focusing on those myriad creations that make up Little Jerusalem, Vaughn is finishing up the new documentary “Brother Joseph and the Grotto,” which digs into the life of the man who put it all together.

It took two years of pouring over faded documents, letters and ledgers, but Vaughn and his team believe they have finally pieced together the most complete snapshot yet of the mysterious Bavarian monk, who died in 1961.

“We really wanted to do some archival digging on Bro. Joseph, to see if we could uncover some of the small details of his life,” Vaughn said.

From Bro. Joseph’s arrival in America at Ellis Island just six weeks after it opened, to his decades at the monastery, Vaughn has tried to tell the story through the lens of a man trying to serve God in a “small” way.

“We found a scrapbook full of 381 postcards his family in Bavaria had sent to him, which revealed he stayed in touch with his family and they loved him very, very much,” Vaughn said. “It’s just those types of interesting little glimpses into his life. We also found a manuscript in the archives that has never gotten a lot of attention, completed in 1974 and written by the monks, where they try to make sense of their ‘little brother’ as they called him. There are some terrific stories there.”

Vaughn said the film will also delve into Bro. Joseph’s devotion to St. Therese’s “Little Way,” a philosophy of deep humility based on finding God in the mundane, or “little,” aspects of life.

“The life and work of Saint Therese was important to Bro. Joseph and plays an important role in the film, as well,” Vaughn said. “She emphasized the ‘little way,’ a life of service and humility. Joseph found her book she’d written on this and became a devotee of Saint Therese, and we think the film will give renewed attention to the way he followed this ‘little way.’”

The film will be finished in a few months, and Vaughn said he plans to schedule some regional screenings, submit it to film festivals, and shop it around to history-focused public television programs later this year.

“We hope it will have a lot of play in Alabama and the south, and I think people outside the south will be interested in it, as well,” Vaughn said. “That’s partly because of the uniqueness of the story, with a Bavarian monk settling down in this little corner of Alabama.”

But what about the song that inspired Vaughn’s whole project to begin with? He found a way to fit that in, too — and even got Campbell on-camera for an interview about how Bro. Joseph’s story inspired her to write it.

“That song had cinematic qualities to it, and a couple of years ago we just finally got around to digging in to see if there was potential for a documentary there,” he said. “Her song will actually be in the documentary, as well, and we have an interview with her.”

Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.

Text Only
Top News
  • Good Hope band School grappling with massive Good Hope band growth

    With the band more than doubling in size over the past four years, Good Hope High School is dealing with what principal Anita Kilpatrick calls “a great problem to have.” But, it’s still a problem.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • WEB MUGS 2 Cullman men arrested in Garden City cemetery on drug charges

    Two Cullman men were arrested in a Garden City cemetery after 28 plastic baggies allegedly filled with marijuana, methampheatmine, and crystal ice were found in their vehicle.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • Beatles Rehearsal WSCC singers to pay tribute to the Beatles

    It’s been 50 years since the Beatles made the leap from across the pond to shake up the music scene in America. Their influence is still being felt today and will on display as the Wallace State Singers present “Revolution: A Musical Celebration of the Beatles.”

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • FHS 2 Academics improve after anti-bullying program implemented at Fairview High School

    Last year, Fairview High School teachers and students listened as speakers from a program called Rachel’s Challenge taught them about how to deal with bullying in their school.

    April 19, 2014 2 Photos

  • Danny Ray Allred Former Cullman man sentenced in sex abuse case

    An Arley man accepted a plea bargain of a suspended 10-year sentence in connection to a 2012 Cullman County sexual abuse case involving his stepdaughter on April 4.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • lawenforcementreports.jpg Arrests, incidents reports for April 17, 2014

    Here is a look at the incidents that were reported to the Cullman City Police Department for Thursday:

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • Local groups get $38,500 in grants

    The Cullman County Community Development Commission (CCCDC) awarded two local fire departments $10,000 each at its monthly meeting last week.

    April 18, 2014

  • Bussman Spay-neuter clinics lose bid to gain legitimacy

    Alabama Sen. Paul Bussman received more than $14,000 from veterinarians across the state — including $10,000 from the Political Animal political action committee — prior to filibustering a bill to allow nonprofit spay-neuter clinics to continue operating in the state.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • WSCC Gill Accomplished vocalists to perform Tuesday at WSCC

    Two amazing vocalists will perform on Tuesday, April 22 at Wallace State Community College as part of the college’s annual Arts in April celebration.

    April 18, 2014 2 Photos

  • Relay For Life Survivors' breakfast

    The committee planning the annual Relay For Life of Cullman County event will once again host the Survivors’ Breakfast to honor both cancer survivors and caregivers. The breakfast will be held at 7 a.m., Wednesday, April 30, at Cullman Church of Christ. The church is located at the corner of Highway 157 and Childhaven Road.

    April 18, 2014