Greetings From…Dickeyville, Wisconsin

by Michael Boyink/ mike@douglascountyherald.com

Matt was 31 years old. 

Living in Germany.

Training to become a priest.

He decided to move to America. 

Not New York. Not San Francisco. 

Milwaukee.

Resourceful, somehow. Matt managed to re-engage in his training, earning ordination as a Catholic priest three years later. 

Then he disappeared. 11 years later, he popped up 160 miles east of Milwaukee.  In Dickeyville. 

Dickeyville wasn’t much – maybe 150 souls called it home.

The town had one of most things. One hotel, one store, one saloon, one shoe shop, one cheese factory. 

It had two of a few things. Two schools, two carpenter shops, and two churches.

Matt become Father Matthias Wernerus at one of those churches.

It wasn’t a happy time. The church was grieving. They had lost three young men in a recent war.

Father Mathias decided to do something.

Something to help the church heal. Something to honor the fallen.

Where Father Matthias got the skills is anyone’s guess. Certainly the Catholic Church didn’t teach it.

But, now 45 years old, Father Matthias began building. Building to memorialize. To inspire.

He started small. Little projects around the church and graveyard. But a vision for something bigger developed as he worked. 

That vision formed around two passions – God and his adopted country. 

He didn’t ask the church for help. Working with his own funds and his own hands, he began his bigger work.

It took rocks and stones, both local and imported.

It took gems from all the U.S. states and some foreign countries. 

It took sea shells, colored glass, fossils, coral, bits of iron, copper and lead, fool’s good, pottery, porcelain, door knockers, figurines, and anything petrified.

The shrine to Jesus Christ the King at the Dickeyville Grotto in Wisconsin.

It took cement to give it shape.

It took all year – working in the church basement for the winter or outdoors in the summer.

For five years, the rocks keep coming. 30 ton truckloads at a time.

 He keep his reasons to himself. “Why it was done I could not reveal,” he said. “The last day will tell you more about that.”

Finally, in September of 1930, Father Matthias Wernerus laid down his tools. The truckloads of rock stopped coming.

The completed portions of the Grotto include statues of Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. 

It has a replica of the Liberty Bell, and names the fruits of the spirit and the seven virtues. 

There are shrines to the Holy Eucharist, the Sacred Heart, Christ the King, Fatima, and the Stations of the Cross.

And much more.

People started to visit. Lots of people. 50,000 on one Sunday alone.

On dedication day, High Mass was conducted. The Governor gave an address. The Grotto was consecrated. Fireworks were set off while a brass band played.

A year later, another stone marker was added nearby. No gems, shells or coral adorn this one. It’s a modest, gray stone that reads: 

Builder of the Grotto

Ordained June 23, 1907 

Rev. Matthias Wernerus 

1873-1931

Matthias is gone. But one rock by one piece of glass by one bit of pottery, he built a legacy that thousands of people still come to see each year.

A closeup of a portion of the Grotto shows cement encrusted with shells, glass, rocks, all set in cement.

Father Wernerus’s Grotto has been featured on Atlas Obscura, Travel Wisconsin, Roadside America, PBS, and countless travel blogs. Learn more at dickeyvillegrotto.com.