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 email@example.com, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.