Villa St. Joseph is a Franciscan retirement home which was built on the edge of the small town of St. Joseph Ridge in 1898. The home has long been associated with St. Rose convent in La Crosse. The sisters also ran a working farm here called Pleasant Home, which provided meat and vegetables for the convent and St. Francis Hospital in La Crosse.
In 1925, Father Paul Dobberstein, who was well-known for his Grotto of the Redemption, was asked to create a memorial for Sister M. Adriana Ens. Ens' sister and niece from Detroit commissioned the monument for the place where Sister Adriana had served as superior for more than 30 years. Other donors contributed money for statuary and materials.
Like Dobberstein's other smaller grottos in Carroll, Davenport, Humboldt and Wesley, the grotto was constructed in sections at Dobberstein's indoor workshop in his home in West Bend which were later shipped to St. Joseph Ridge by railroad. The last 10 miles of the 225-mile journey from West Bend, up the ridge from La Crosse, must have been the most challenging for delivering the 100 tons of rock to the site. Several newspaper accounts say that the grotto was built by Frank Donsky, the farm caretaker at Villa St. Joseph, so Dobberstein may not have been present when the grotto was put together. During the same time period, he was also building the grotto in Carroll, so he may not have had time to visit both construction sites. The grotto was completed in 1930.
Passersby on Route 33 see the back side of the grotto. A delicate sign of brightly-colored rock chips advertises that this is not just a pile of stones by the side of the highway. Pull over!
The front of the grotto faces north toward the rest of the grounds of Villa St. Joseph. The structure is a rugged mound built around a small interior space which houses marble statues of the Holy Family. The sculptures were made by Daprato Statuary of Chicago, which employed generations of stone carvers from the town of Barga in northern Italy and immigrant artisans in Chicago to craft marble and plaster religious statuary.
Small niches on the face of the rock wall shelter three other marble statues of Saint Theresa, St. Michael, and Saint Barbara.
During the same years Dobberstein and Donsky were building the St. Joseph grotto, a hundred miles downriver Father Mathias Wernerus was building his own grotto in Dickeyville. Whether the famous grotto building priests ever met is unclear, especially if Dobberstein was not present during the construction at St. Joseph Ridge.
A number of similarities between the two constructions seem to suggest they may have influenced each other to some extent. Both are built around a rectangular central facade with an arched entry to the grotto interior, with circular decorations on either side which look like eyes of a grotesque face with an uncanny resemblance to the gape-mouthed monster in the Garden of Bomarzo.
Both grottos are also flanked by two stocky flag posts depicting the American and Papal flags.
Like the stone flags at the Dickeyville Grotto, the flags are directly labelled "Patriotism" and "Religion". The 1920s were a time of rising anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic prejudice. The Ku Klux Klan organized a chapter in Milwaukee in 1920 and spread in the next years to smaller cities across Wisconsin. The prominent flags and labels on the grotto seem meant to make it clear to outsiders that Catholics were as loyal to America as to God.
The grotto incoporates a wide variety of materials. Small chunks of colored opaque glass wedged between larger stones provide sparks of bright color.
In the grotto interior, flowers or stars made of quartz, seashells and glass shine down on Mary and Joseph.
The Holy Family Grotto is located on the grounds of the Villa St. Joseph retirement home on Highway 33 east of La Crosse.
References and Links to the Holy Family Grotto
presented by Minnesota Museum of the Mississippi