Building the Grotto

WEST BEND – Gary Weber has a close connection to West Bend’s most famous landmark. When he was younger he was given the chance to help build parts of the Grotto of the Redemption.

“We lived right across from the Grotto pond,” Weber said. “I would come over here every day, and I would be amazed with the Grotto. Me and Father Greving got to be real good friends, and he said, ‘Would you want a job?’ I said, ‘Well sure.'”

The Grotto was one man’s vision, but it took many hands to complete the massive structure. The Rev. Paul Dobberstein began work on his masterpiece in 1912. He was aided by Matt Szerensce for 52 years, and later by the Rev. Louis Greving. Greving took over for Dobberstein after he passed away in 1954.

“When I was younger I used to go back and forth,” Weber said, “and work for Matt Szerensce and Father Greving at the same time.”

Greving asked Weber for help putting up the arch at the front of the Grotto, which stands over the statue of Jesus on top of the Grotto of Mary, the first part of the structure Dobberstein completed. This was in 1992, Weber said.

“I said I would be honored to help build the Grotto,” he said.

Weber mixed the concrete up for Greving. He would bring all the rocks Greving needed from the shed, and a wheelbarrow of cement.

“He would pull it up with an old wooden frame and a pulley, dump it out, and start putting the cement and the rocks into place,” Weber said.

Greving taught Weber how to make concrete according to Dobberstein’s formula – two parts sand to one part Portland cement – and how Dobberstein made the rosettes that adorn parts of the Grotto.

Weber now makes those rosettes for the souvenir shop.

“They’ve got (Dobberstein’s) rosettes in a case,” he said. “When tourists would come in, they would say is that for sale? And they would say no. They contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in making rosettes. So this is what I’ve been doing.”

Dobberstein made rosettes in his basement during winter, Weber said, and place them in the Grotto when it got warmer. He also kept them moist while the concrete was drying.

“The slower it dries, the harder the cement,” Weber said. “He would mist it every so often to let it cure not as fast, because if it did, it would crack. That’s why the Grotto doesn’t have cracks.”

Weber often finishes one rosette in a day, though big ones take longer than smaller ones, and the amount of time he works at the Grotto varies. He also volunteers with whatever else is needed.

“He comes every morning without fail and feeds the swans, all the waterfowl,” said Grotto Director Mary Straub Lavelle. “Then if I need something done right away, like sweeping something out because a tour is coming, he’ll do that.”

“He’s an amazing volunteer,” she added. “Even as a kid, he would give his own kid tours, as a 10-year-old. It’s just been in his blood his whole life.”

Now, Weber has his own small Grotto in the same style as the big one.

“Father Greving liked the way I helped him at the Grotto. He actually built a grotto down in my yard,” Weber said. “It’s a lamb grotto, and it’s got four polished agates.”