CULLMAN, Ala. – In a north Alabama city forever changed by April's tornado outbreak, one historic spot went untouched by destruction.
The Ave Maria Grotto, also known as "Jerusalem in Miniature," rests on a hillside at St. Bernard Abbey, Alabama's only Benedictine monastery. The artistic refuge is made up of over 125 miniature handmade replicas of historic religious buildings and shrines.
Created during a lifetime of monastic dedication, the grotto mostly represents the artwork of Brother Joseph Zoetl, a monk who lived at the Abbey for nearly 70 years.
Replicas of structures like St. Peter's Basilica, the Pantheon and the Alamo bring visitors from across the world to the four-acre park in Cullman. Although not all of the replicas have religious themes, many visitors see the park as a place of inspiration.
Cathy May, a worker at the park's gift shop, says the site has seen an increase in traffic since the tornadoes crashed through the state April 27.
As residents continue rebuilding, some find a place of tranquility in the grotto.
Cullman residents Diane Moore and John Flannigan visited the grotto on Wednesday, admiring the intricate details of the miniature structures perched on the hillside of a former stone quarry. They said the solitude of the location was comforting.
"We came out here after the storms to make sure it was still here," said Moore.
The cement miniatures and other treasures in the grotto were spared by winds that shattered residences and buildings just miles away.
"It's a blessing," said Flannigan.
Surrounded by religious inspiration and natural beauty, the marvelous space offers respite from the devastation so close at hand.
"It's peaceful knowing that we can come here, and that nothing has changed in this place," said Moore.
Brother Martin Weidner, a monk who lives at the monastery, says the grounds of the Abbey were in the direct line of the path of the storms.
"I actually saw the tornado coming directly toward us," said Weidner, who witnessed his first Alabama tornado from the window of his second-story bedroom in the monastery.
"We all ran to the basement," he said. "It was scary."
As the tornado ripped through Cullman, it destroyed several of the community's churches. The Abbey was spared. So was The Sacred Heart Catholic Church, located nearby.
May described the joy she felt when she realized her church was still standing.
"As we turned the corner to visit the Abbey, the first thing we see is the two gold crosses on top of Sacred Heart. We were relieved that our church was untouched."
"Some people are saying that God protected us," said May. "God is God, no matter what religion you are ... but you can drive around this site and see no damage here."
Weidner says he is glad the Abbey grounds and grotto are serving as places of peace.
"We have a lot to offer," he said. "It is important for people to know there is hope."