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  Churches

A church is many things to many people—a place of worship, a social meeting ground and a location for bazaars, craft fairs and yummy church dinners. But for a tourist, a church can take on new shades of meaning. It can be an entryway to the community being visited, shedding light on local culture, history, personalities and religious tradition. A church can also be a work of art, or house works of art that you won’t see anywhere outside a museum. Older Minnesota churches especially are treasure troves of genealogical data, with birth and death records dating back 150 years or more. Depending on where you go and what time of year, you might even land on some of the hottest educational programs, concerts and theatrical per- formances going. Another bonus with church tours is they fit your schedule. You can have your group in and out in an hour or less—freeing up time for things like lunch!

It’s no wonder that many churches have devoted rooms and wall space to historical artifacts and interpretation. When you think about it, churches are among the oldest structures around, whether you’re talking a village of 500 or a city of several hundred thousand. If you want a quick brush up on local history, you can’t do much better than a church. It never hurts to have a local guide there either. For example, did you know that the patron saints you see in some of Minnesota’s Catholic churches (Anthony, John the Baptist, Patrick, Boniface, Cyril and Methodius) represent the ethnic groups (Italians, French Canadians, Irish, Germans and Slavs respectively) who populated the early Twin Cities?

Art and religion have always had a close relationship. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the church was a major patron of the arts, sponsoring artists like Da Vinci and Michelangelo and commissioning some of the best art the world has ever known. The relationship between artists and churches continues to thrive in Minnesota. Local, national and international artists have left their

mark on the architecture and interior decoration. Just stepping inside some of these spaces is like entering a work of art. Walls soar and curve. Stained glass windows tint the air. Even your homier churches reveal the handiwork of master craftsmen.

Looking to add a little entertainment to your group tour? Concerts, concertos and choirs sound marvelous inside a church. So does theater. Theatrical productions like the popular “Church Basement Ladies 2,” a humorous send up of what it means to be Minnesota Lutheran, stage regular productions in—where else? —churches. Consider a Christmas Celebration Branson style at Celebration Church in Lakeville where tour busses are welcomed. In Easter season they do a magnificent production entitled “Beyond The Cross.” You might also include one of the many year round productions at North Heights Lutheran Church in Roseville. (Contact Roseville CVB.) Including a church tour before the show can really get your group into the spirit.

  Grottos

Hula hoops, tailfins, platform shoes, Cabbage patch dolls and grotto building. Do you know what these items have in common? They were all fads at one point or another. Grotto building, probably the least familiar of the group, had its heyday in the 1920s and ‘30s, with a tapering off in the ‘40s. But unlike your old bellbottoms, grottos have stuck it out through the decades. A lot of that has to do with their size. Some stretch several town blocks. But the real reason grottos still make a buzz with tourists is that they’re downright magnificent.

In Europe, grotto building has enjoyed a long history. Ancient Rome had an early practitioner in Emperor Tiberius. Later generations of Europeans flocked to grottos to escape the heat among their cool dark interiors and garden walks. Originally from Germany, Father Paul Dobberstein is credited with bringing the art of grotto building to the Upper Midwest at the beginning of the 20th century.

But, you may be asking, what exactly is

a grotto? Father Dobberstein’s take on grotto building was strictly religious. He embellished a concrete mountain range with murals retelling the fall and redemption of humankind. However, for the multitudes of people who visited the grotto and were inspired to build their own, a grotto was simply a giant act of creation. Like old-time barns, springhouses and cabins, grottos are examples of folk building traditions. The people who built them, more often than not, had no formal training in architecture or art—which is amazing enough when you consider the complexity of these grottos.

Midwestern grottos run the gamut from caves and rock gardens to elaborate towers, waterways, flowerbeds, man- made hills and buildings. Some locations have all of the above. What unifies one grotto to the next, though, are the murals and other artistic embellishments that seem to crawl over every inch of concrete like multicolored ivy. Even statues of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus are decorated with bits of glass, china, stone and metal embedded in their surface. The grotto builders, many of them working during the years of the Depression, had to be resourceful when scrounging up materials. On close inspection, murals of trees and faces turn out to be perfume stoppers and knobs sorted by color and then arranged. When it came to art, these homespun creators applied the anything goes rule, and you never know what you’ll find around the next bend of the trail—a picture of Uncle Sam, a collection of old farm machinery or a bower perfect for a moment of quiet reflection.

Speaking of reflection, churches and grottos are great for sitting back and letting the world go by. Ever sat in an empty sanctuary as the organist limbered up her fingers? It ranks up there with ice cream on a hot day and the first snow of winter. Churches and grottos will give your customers something to see, but also that elusive quality that travel provides at no extra charge–permission to slow down and engage your senses in the world around you.

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