American Religion in a Fantasia of Quartz and Seashells

Dickeyville Grotto in Dickeyville, WI
Trevor Burrows

The start of the new academic year often prompts us, as we reunite with colleagues and friends, to describe our summer’s activities or accomplishments. This year I have responded by recounting the road trip that my wife and I took over the summer break, from Indiana to Colorado and back again. Some have asked about the route. “We drove through Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas on the way there,” I say, but before I can continue I am interrupted by my interlocutor, who feels the need to weigh in on the topography of our country’s vast central section. Their unanimous verdict: the Midwest is flat, featureless, and boring.

“Kansas was actually quite pretty in parts,” I offer. They shrug with indifference.

Fair enough, perhaps. After all, if you are looking for mountains you’ll find few; depending on your route, you’re unlikely to see much by way of forests or interesting foliage. I could nitpick and point to sections of the drive in just about every state that made us swoon a bit, but this is not a travel site and I am not a naturalist. What I can say with full confidence, however, is that the Midwest has something more to offer RiAH readers: a surprising number of unique religion-related sites that encourage us to put the books down, at least for a moment, and to think about religious history in more experiential terms.

Consider, for instance, the region’s penchant for large grottoes. One of my first grotto experiences, and still one of my favorites, was the Dickeyville Grotto in Dickeyville, Wisconsin. Erected in the late 1920s, the grotto was constructed by Father Matthias Wernerus who served at the connected parish for much of the early twentieth century. Describing the grotto is difficult if only for its complexity and sheer abundance: mountains of concrete are densely ornamented with a range of gems, colored glass, and special stones. Pictures don't do such sites justice, either. Zoom in too close and you lose the immensity of the place; zoom out too far and you lose the detail. In "Dickeyville Grotto," poet Mark Doty describes it as "a fantasia of quartz/ and seashells, broken/ dishes, stalactites/and stick-shift knobs." Building the grotto was as much a collective activity as a private endeavor, a fact made visible through the variety of materials brought by community members to be embedded in the site: broken dishes, children’s toys, and other artifacts from the average home. A number of shrines provide points of anchorage and attraction for visitors, beckoning them to stop, admire, and contemplate. There is a shrine for Christ the King, for Fatima, a Sacred Heart shrine, and the Stations of the Cross.

Patriotism at Dickeyville
Yet like many grottoes, Dickeyville mixes symbols that are traditionally considered “religious” with the unabashedly patriotic in a large structure of “patriotism in stone,” where Columbus, Lincoln, George Washington, and an eagle celebrate the discovery of the New World. It is hard for the historian to ignore the connection between the grotto’s overt patriotism and the times in which it was built, when the quest for 100% Americanism revived questions concerning the compatibility of Catholicism, democracy, and notions of freedom. The observation hints at the multivocal nature of these spaces. There is no one way to read a site like Dickeyville’s religious form and content. Its suggestions of community might remind you of Orsi’s Madonna. Its patriotism hints at the history and experience of Catholicism in the Midwest and the country at large. And of course there is the experience of viewing it as a piece of art, a reminder that form and content here cannot be divorced, that the religious content is grounded not only in its symbols or its origins, but is embedded in its very aesthetics and craft.

Grotto of the Redemption, West Bend, IA
It has been suggested that Father Wernerus was inspired by Father Paul Dobberstein, another priest whose numerous concrete structures dot the Midwest. Dobberstein’s most famous structure, the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, Iowa, was begun in 1912; it covers an entire city block. Like the Dickeyville Grotto, the Grotto of the Redemption consists of a range of minerals and gems, collected from across the continent and beyond, embedded in mounds of concrete to portray a variety of biblical scenes and symbols including the Fall, the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, a nativity scene, and the Ten Commandments. And like Dickeyville, the site beckons you to move through it, to climb stairs and discover unexpected alcoves. These and other grottoes of the Midwest are not paintings or standalone sculptures that can be admired in a single moment from a stationary position, as you might in a museum. They sparkle and appear to shift as you move through them; like the Stations of the Cross, they require a sort of mini-pilgrimage that reminds you of your body and its limits.

The Immaculate Heart of Mary
Queen of Peace at Trinity Heights, Sioux City, IA
Beyond the grottoes of the Midwest are a range of other religious attractions that vary widely in their style, content, and mission. Christian and populist imagery blur together in the limestone sculptures of the Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas. More recent creations include the thirty-foot tall statues of The Immaculate Heart of Mary Queen of Peace and the Sacred Heart of Jesus towering over Trinity Heights in Sioux City, Iowa, or the immense collection of nun dolls and portrayals of biblical scenes in wax found at the Museum of the Religious Arts in Logan, Iowa. It may be mountainless, but there’s plenty to see in the Midwest.

Thinking about how others respond to these and other sites - I've taken to calling them "public religious attractions" for lack of a better term - is often as interesting as visiting the spaces themselves. Scholars of art and art history often lump them in with a broad and somewhat problematic category of art that goes by many names - outsider art, visionary art, folk art, grassroots art - which seems to be defined primarily by the artist’s lack of formal training or institutional support, as well as the unconventional aesthetics of the work itself. The popularity of websites like Roadside America has brought a host of new visitors to these often overlooked attractions, but their language and style can also encourage viewers to approach the spaces as baffling spectacles, as paradigms of the weird. It's admittedly hard not to approach them that way yourself, as they often appear quite outside the norm of everyday experience or "conventional" art. But in the process of marking these spaces as curiosities, the religious or spiritual content of the art is often overlooked or marginalized; the fact that these spaces are often sites for religious practice and expression as well as sites to be admired or explored by tourists can be easily forgotten.

It is not clear, however, that the original builders of these sites would be altogether displeased with such ambiguous responses. I spent some of my summer trying to dig up public and private commentary from the periods when the Midwest's grottoes were constructed. Although I haven’t found many personal accounts yet, it is clear from the region’s small-town newspapers that many of these builder-artists understood themselves to have been creating a type of tourist attraction. Some of them intentionally added extra elements of curiosity and surprise to attract guests. Live animals were apparently popular in this regard: as Roadside America notes, the Grotto of the Redemption kept a bear on the premises in its early years. Many offered tours. Others added food stands and gift shops at an early date.

And it worked. One of the peculiar benefits of small-town papers from the early-twentieth century is that they often chronicled local citizens’ vacations, visitors, and other affairs. It’s clear from these accounts that people from all over the Midwest and beyond drove to these sites on weekend getaways or longer roadtrips in the early-twentieth century, often grouping them together as sites of interest on a single trip, not unlike we do today. Thinking about how they might have encountered these attractions - as tourists in search of a spectacle, as a site for religious veneration, as art, even as a space of unexpected interreligious encounter - should encourage us to pay closer attention to our own responses, to consider the multiple ways of approaching spaces we might designate as "religious." Indeed, they encourage us to question the very designation of "religious" and the implications or assumptions that the category might carry. Perhaps most importantly, they are a reminder that it's important to put down the book and step out of the car as there's a lot to learn on foot - even in the supposedly barren and boring Midwest.