Born in 1878 in the Kingdom of Bavaria, Brother Joseph was maimed in an accident that gave him a hunchback. He immigrated to the United States as a teenager, settling in northern Alabama. Soon afterward he began studying at the newly founded Benedictine monastery of St. Bernard’s, where he took his vows in 1897. He ran the monastery’s power plant and was, even by a monk's standards, a withdrawn, quiet man. Until his death in 1961, Brother Joeseph rarely left Alabama.
The display is strung out along a forested trail that winds down past several building clusters built into a steep hillside. Roman Catholic cathedrals and monasteries predominate — notably St. Peter's Basilica, the Monte Casino Abbey and the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes — along with scenes from ancient Jerusalem, whence the grotto's sobriquet, "Jerusalem in Miniature". Half of the hillside features buildings and scenes from the Holy Land. Also displayed are number of secular buildings and the occasional pagan temple, including the Alamo Mission in San Antonio, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Spanish missions, German castles, South African shrines, Hansel and Gretel's Temple of the Fairies, and even the St. Bernard Abbey power station, where the friar worked shoveling coal.
Near the beginning of the path stands an imagined Tower of Babel, recalling the vainglorious attempt of humans to build a tower to the heavens. Close to the end, a Tower of Thanks expresses Brother Joseph’s gratitude for the support he received throughout the years building his sculptures.
Though executed in great detail, the scale of the edifices is often distorted, with towers and buttresses too large or small, as onsite literature acknowledges. A central artificial cave constitutes the Ave Maria Grotto proper, with pretend-stalactite-encrusted ceiling and statues of the Virgin Mary and assorted monks and nuns. The grotto was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.