Father Paul Dobberstein's fame as the builder of the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend resulted in several commissions for smaller grottos in Wesley, Humboldt, St. Joseph Ridge and other places. He took no payment for this work except for the cost of materials and a small salary for his assistant Matt Szerensce. In April 1923 he began working on a grotto in the southwest corner of the grounds of St. Angela's Institute in Carroll.
St. Angela's Institute opened in 1909 as a business and vocational school for young women. Within the first few years a girls' high school program was added which outlasted the vocational program. In 1923 the school was renamed St. Angela's Academy. By 1940 the school had 153 students.
Father Dobberstein constructed much of the grotto in sections at his indoor workshop at West Bend. The pieces were shipped to Carroll and then set in place during periodic visits to the site. The postcard image above of the incomplete grotto was reprinted in an April 1925 newspaper article, which makes it likely that the image was taken in summer 1924. The article quotes Dobberstein estimating the structure would be complete in five weeks, but in actuality it would not be finished for another three years.
The statue of St. Michael near the grotto was added to the school grounds a few years before the grotto in 1918. A sidewalk to the left leads around a curve to the grotto.
The grotto is a roughly symmetrical mountain with outstretched limbs. The rock walls were made from rugged limestone gathered from the river bluffs near LaCrosse, Wisconsin, encrusted with stalactites, geodes, petrified wood and rare crystals. A narrow, winding staircase leads up to a small viewing platform enclosed by railings with mosaic panels encrusted with copper ore, amethyst and rose quartz.
The top of the structure was originally crowned with an onyx cross from a Mexican cave. Not long after the grotto opened some boys visiting the top balcony, out of view of their chaperone, first knocked over an urn and then used the broken pieces to play target practice with the prominent cross, which tumbled down and shattered on the sidewalk in front of the grotto. Even when the grotto was not a year old and still under construction, groundskeepers noted that souvenir hunters had chipped off attractive crystals and small stones. Many vandals with second-thoughts abandoned their trophies in the grass around the grotto.
The entrance to the interior of the grotto is sheltered by a semi-circular wall blocking direct entry from the lawn. The wall was about waist-high, with heavy square piers on the ends and a spectacular quartz crystal in the center. The interior of the wall was encrusted with large light-colored geodes around a larger opening. The postcard photo above may have been taken in summer 1924 when the grotto was under construction, because the piers have not yet been topped by decorative urns as in the postcard image at the top of this page.
Father Dobberstein's younger brother Bernard lived in Carroll, so he had a connection to the town, but the inspiration for building the grotto is said to have come from the donation by a St. Angela's alumna of an Italian-carved Carrara marble statue of the Virgin. Students at the school donated their shell collections, which may have become some of the decorations visible in the postcard image above. The Virgin stands on an overflowing platform of corals and crystals and is crowned with a rocky halo. A triangular platform below the statue spells out "Immaculate Conception" in colored stones. The walls of the niche are formed into close embedded columns supporting a domed vault with ribs. The space appears reminiscent of an undersea cavern, lit by a strange light and flourishing with quiet microscopic creatures. Its a pity these postcard images are not in color!
In its early years, the Immaculate Conception Grotto may have been better-known and more visited than Dobberstein's first grotto in West Bend. The Lincoln Highway ran through through Carroll, so tourists and travelers looking for a diversion spread word of this unique attraction at a time when West Bend was still remote and accessible only by unimproved roads.
In 1954 the newly-formed Kuemper High School acquired St. Angela's Academy and built an extra wing on the building to accomodate 800 co-ed students. Many of the nuns who had previously taught at St. Angela's continued on at Kuemper High School. The 1954 addition was planned carefully to preserve the grotto, but the next addition just eight years later was not so considerate. The grotto was dismantled by Father Louis Greving in 1962 and its stones were taken to West Bend to become part of a snack bar there.
Immaculate Conconception Grotto was located on the soutwest corner of the St. Angela Academy grounds at the corner of Clark & Bluff Streets in Carroll. It was dismantled in 1962.
References and Links to the Immaculate Conception Grotto
presented by Minnesota Museum of the Mississippi