116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
WEST BEND — While many Christian churches are now commemorating Holy Week, the Shrine of the Grotto of the Redemption celebrates the life, death and resurrection of Jesus year-round.
Wandering through this huge complex truly is a religious experience, whether you’re Catholic or not, and well worth the drive. Full of statuary, precious- and semiprecious stones from around the world, and the Stations of the Cross, each of the nine grottos contains a scene from the life of Christ, hand-carved from gleaming white Italian Carrara marble.
What: The Shrine of the Grotto of the Redemption
Where: 208 First Ave. NW, West Bend
Open: Year-round, 24 hours a day, seven days a week
Admission: Free, donations accepted
Grounds: The shrine contains nine grottos depicting scenes from Jesus’ life, death and resurrection; Stations of the Cross; museum and gift shop; Saints Peter & Paul Catholic Church; campground details at westbendgrotto.com/visit/campground
Tours: Seasonal guided tours 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, April through October, beginning at the museum; pilgrimage details available at westbendgrotto.com/contact
Special event: A Day of Prayer and Reflection, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 23, 2022, $50, includes grotto tour, lunch, presentations, quiet time, sacrament opportunities, 4 p.m. Mass; westbendgrotto.com/visit/day-of-reflection
Grotto details: westbendgrotto.com
City history, attractions: westbendiowa.com
Covering a full city block, it is a place for reflection and admiration for the vision, faith and perseverance of Father Paul Dobberstein of Rosenfeld, Germany, who began building the massive structure in 1912. It’s a work in progress that continues today.
I stumbled upon it on the way home from spending several hours in nearby Emmetsburg. I initially flew by the sign saying 9 miles to West Bend, but reconsidered, turned around and made a quick side trip. I’m so glad I did.
While I had heard about the West Bend grotto, it flew under my radar until Gazette reader Jim Landherr of Cedar Rapids sent me some photos last fall and recommended it for A Day Away, figuring many people in Cedar Rapids may not know it’s there.
“We’ve got all these fabulous things to see in the state of Iowa,” he added.
I zipped through the complex on a cold blustery day in early March. Landherr and a friend did it the right way in late September, taking a guided tour and taking their time to really absorb and reflect upon the nine grottos within the shrine.
They also went to Saints Peter & Paul Catholic Church next door, which includes the Christmas Chapel, built in 1927, containing rocks and minerals deemed too delicate to withstand the weather. Of special note is the 300-pound Brazilian amethyst in the wall above the baby Jesus, given to Father Dobberstein through funds raised by the parish youth.
Landherr said he and his friend still didn’t see everything the complex has to offer, especially in the adjacent museum and gift shop.
Then plan on devoting most of a day to reaching West Bend and reflecting on the grotto’s many wonders. It lies 196 miles northwest of Cedar Rapids and 223 miles northwest of Iowa City. The grotto is totally worth the three-plus hours it takes to get there.
Landherr’s father took him there, but he was too young to remember much about that trip.
“I knew it was a pretty spectacular site, so I’d just been wanting to go for a while,” said Landherr, now 76, “and finally decided to find somebody to go with me and make the trip up there.”
They decided to make a full day of the excursion and also explored the Heartland Museum in Clarion, which is worth a story of its own.
The shrine’s history is as colorful as the stones embedded in the grottos, and is outlined at westbendgrotto.com/research/history/.
Father Dobberstein, born in Germany on Sept. 21, 1872, came to America at age 20. He studied for the priesthood at the Seminary of St. Francis near Milwaukee, and was ordained there on June 30, 1897.
As a young seminarian, he became critically ill with pneumonia and prayed to the Blessed Virgin to intercede for healing, promising to build a shrine in her honor if he survived.
After serving one year as chaplain for the Sisters of Mount Carmel hospital in Dubuque, he was appointed to Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in West Bend in 1898, where he served as pastor for the rest of his life.
He spent a decade gathering rocks and precious stones and began building the shrine in 1912. Among the materials gathered, purchased or donated are petrified wood, malachite, azurite, agates, geodes, jasper, quartz, topaz, calcite, stalactites and stalagmites.
The Beatitudes are written in gold mosaic and inlaid in green copper on the Sermon on the Mount plaque. On top is a stalagmite weighing more than a ton, which came from Carlsbad Caverns before the New Mexico site became a National Park.
After graduation, Matt Szerensce signed on as a full-time grotto collaborator, laboring over construction for 52 years, alongside Father Dobberstein.
When Father Dobberstein turned 74, Father Louis Greving was appointed to take over the church’s clerical duties and assist in the ongoing grotto construction, which he continued for 50 years.
Father Dobberstein died July 24, 1954, and was buried in the parish cemetery a half-mile west of the Grotto. Szerensce retired in 1959 and Father Greving died Feb. 14, 2002. He also is buried in the parish cemetery.
Today, about 100,000 tourists come to West Bend to see the Grotto, which was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.
In keeping with Father Dobberstein’s wishes that everyone should be able to see the shrine, regardless of financial circumstances, admission to the shrine is free, but donations are accepted. He also wanted the site to be a geological classroom, so school tours and geological learning tours are available.
The site is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
About West Bend, Iowa
West Bend, established in 1856, was incorporated Jan. 31, 1884, as the first town in Palo Alto County.
For a deeper dive into history, the town is home to several museums, including Palo Alto County’s first one-room school, restored in 1976 and moved to West Bend. The town’s original Post Office was restored in 1998 and placed next to the school. An outhouse was later added to this complex.
Other historic sites include a replica of a prairie sod house, and the West Bend Historical Museum, which opened in 2006 and contains artifacts arranged in room-like settings, as well as a Barn Museum.
Because of the pandemic, the museums are open by appointment, by calling (515) 200-9234. For details, go to westbendiowa.com/attractions/historical-sites.
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