By Kathleen Rooney

In the pamphlet that you can purchase in the gift shop of the Dickeyville Grotto and Shrines in Dickeyville, Wisconsin (population: 1,061 souls), the anonymous author writes, “It is an unknown fact to the casual observer, that there is almost as much rock underground, supporting the shrines and grottoes as appears above the surface.”

057This statement wasn’t intended to refer to artists and the hidden motivations that impel them to create, nor to the ways that works of art are often underlaid by a mysterious network of imperceptible support, but it certainly could have been.

Father Mathias Wernerus (1873-1931), a Roman Catholic priest born in Alsace, created the extensive portion of the grotto that a casual observer can see over the course of five years from 1925 through 1930 on the grounds of the Holy Ghost Parish Church at the heart of the village in the state’s Southwest corner. The grotto rises unmissably out of the rolling farmland in a touching and unforgettable mélange of monuments to God and country, all rendered with a kind of horror vacui (no surface escaped bedazzling) in an obsessive and devotional brand of weird lapidary art.

085Wernerus encrusted his handiwork with limestone from quarries along the Mississippi, seashells from distant oceans, petrified wood from South Dakota, polished pieces of sequoia and cedar, marbles given to him by the parish kids, shards from the pottery kilns of Kokomo, Indiana, endless semi-precious stones, porcelain figurines, table centerpieces, children’s dining utensils, candle-holders, door-knockers, old lamps, and even, as the brochure states, “many of those round balls which used to be found on the top of a stickshift in old cars.”

I’m ambivalent about religion, and also about patriotism, two virtues in which Father Wernerus placed absolute faith. But I love the Dickeyville Grotto beyond all reason because what it’s really about is this strange and passionate priest’s imagination driving him to spend roughly 1,825 consecutive days of his relatively short life constructing a baroque and gorgeous thing that most people will never see or understand, all without the use of any blueprints.


Kathleen Rooney is a Chicago-based writer. Follow her @kathleenMrooney or visit her at

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