Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Great ships of faith

Barn is the vernacular architecture of Iowa and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. Now declining, many gone to ruin and many more gone entirely, barns plain and fancy expressed our agricultural underpinnings and spoke of rural wisdom --- the imperative to shelter and feed all of God's domestic creatures, not just the human part of the farm family.

I thought of barns when I began to notice similarities between two Roman Catholic churches of south central Iowa Monday while worrying the memory of an old friend, Jeanette Quinn.

Jeanette, Sister Quinn of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary during most of the years I knew her, was sent at age 13, if I'm remembering the story correctly, to the sisters in Ottumwa to find a vocation among them. Her Irish family had taken root first in Iowa at Georgetown.

Look at them, both St. Patrick's of Georgetown (top), very old in Iowa terms, and the former Chapel of the Magnificat, relatively new, at what once was Ottumwa Heights, and see how barn-like they are, rock-solid and commodious, but still unpretentious, simple shelters for flocks of the faithful.

But ship probably is the better analogy. St. Patrick's does sail toward you across prairie waves, visible for miles as you drive east along U.S. Highway 34 between the Melrose corner and Albia. And the Chapel of the Magnificat sails, too, flagship among a flotilla of low and sprawling wings that once served as Ottumwa Heights College and the mother house of the Sisters of Humility in their western establishment.

The word "nave," referring structurally to that portion of a church where the faithful gather to sit, stand and kneel as they worship, is merely the Latin word "navis," or ship, anglicized. So ship it is.

St. Patrick's has carried its flock through waters rough and smooth for 140 years --- and continues to do so. The Chapel of the Magnificat, however, served for little more than 20 years before finding a new vocation. It is now library and gallery for Indian Hills Community College, also honorable work.


We all have gilt-edged memories that flash through our minds or can be recalled at will of incidents with no particular importance, merely islands in time when all seemed right with the world. One of mine involves Ottumwa Heights, the Chapel of the Magnificat and Jeanette.

We had become friends at the University of Iowa School of Journalism. The J School's student body was relatively small in a large place and we were a tight group, including that dimunitive and gentle nun at least twice our ages in a modified habit (light blue, knee-length skirt, lapel pin rather than crucifix) who had been parked by her superiors in the convent associated with St. Mary's Church while she pursued a degree in journalism. We came to love her and still do, although she died a good many years ago.

It was Indian summer when I saw Jeanette last at Ottumwa Heights during that odd season after we both had received our June degrees. She had gone home restless to Ottumwa Heights and I had enrolled in graduate school while waiting to be drafted (this was at the height of the Vietnam War).

After supper in that glowing late afternoon, we walked from the mother house along cloister-like corridors and through courtyards, visting classrooms and the empty noviciate, then out northeast along a lane through oak-timbered lawns to the cemetery, where generations of sisters had been buried in tidy rows. The air was mild, students were raking and burning leaves and we had much to talk about.

Afterwards, we sat quietly in the chapel for half an hour or so, both sojourners --- Jeanette on a path that a few years later would lead her to a new vocation outside the convent and me, to Vietnam. As we were leaving, Jeanette picked up two rosaries and gave them to me.


St. Patrick's came first, although Georgetown began life as Stacyville (renamed later because north Iowa's similarly named Staceyville claimed a post office by that name first); and St. Patrick's began as St. Gregory's, but was given a patron to better represent its Irish roots in 1872.

The first Irish settlers had arrived in western Monroe County as early as 1844, a year after my ex-Mormon and Brethren ancestors alighted in the far northeast part of the county. Until 1853, when the Rev. John Kreckel was assigned a 13-county parish centered in Ottumwa, Mass was an occasional occurrence. After that, it was celebrated regularly --- once a month.

The Rev. John R. Mitchell became Monroe County's first resident priest in 1856 and he oversaw construction of a log church at Georgetown.

Construction of the great brown sandstone church began in 1860, using stone quarried nearby, but the Civil War intervened and it was not completed until 1869.

Nearly all Catholics in south central Iowa can look to St. Patrick's as their mother parish, including Lucas Countyans. Chariton's Sacred Heart, which began as St. Mary's, was planted by the Rev. Bernard P. McMenomy, St. Gregory/St. Patrick pastor from 1865-1869. In Monroe County, St. Gregory's/St. Patrick's launched as missions St. Patrick's of Melrose, St. Mary's of Albia, St. Mary's of Weller (closed in 1996) and St. Peter's of Lovilia.

The exterior of St. Patrick's has changed little over the years, but the interior has been substantially modified --- the ceiling lowered, and when that happened the lovely reredos behind the high altar that once soared almost to the peak of the roof was lost; and the north wall of the chancel moved forward, meaning the great rose window in the north wall no longer is visible from the nave.

Outside, a low-slung new parish center has replaced the wood frame convent, school (taught by Sisters of Humility from Ottumwa) and parish hall that once stretched north from the church.

St. Patrick's houses a remarkable collection of statuary and some of that is evident on its acres of neatly-mown lawn, including this representation of St. Patrick, which is among fairly recent additions.

The most recent addition is a life-size bronze likeness of Padre Pio, the Italian Capuchin priest canonized St. Pio of Pietrelcina during 2002, located in a small devotional area at the entrance to St. Patrick's Cemetery south across Highway 34 from the church. Padre Pio among the corn seems a little unusual until you remember that St. Pio is very popular in Ireland and when you're standing at Georgetown (or Melrose), you're standing in little Ireland.


If St. Patrick's and Georgetown are unabashedly Irish, the Congregation of the Humility of Mary began with both feet planted firmly in France. After arrival in the United States two establishments developed, the eastern in Pennsylvania and Ohio and the western, in Iowa. The history of the precise relationship between the two is beyond me.

What is clear is that Marie-Antoinette Potier (later Mother Madelaine) originated what became the order, devoted to education and the care of orphans, in the village of Donmartin-sous-Amace. The Rev. John Joseph Begel, parish priest, petitioned for formation of the Sisters of the Humility of Mary, based upon Potier's groundwork, and formation was granted in 1858. He however, ran into trouble with the regime of Napoleon III, which prevented the new order from doing its work in France. As a result, Begel brought 11 sisters and four orphans of the order to the United States in 1864, three months after Mother Madelaine's death.

Some years later, a few of the sisters came west and began work in Missouri. In 1877, the same Rev. John Kreckel who was instrumental in founding St. Patrick's convinced the sisters to move their foundation to Ottumwa and the Sisters of Humility expanded to became so intertwined with southern Iowa that it must have seemed as if the relationship would endure forever.

The congregation, which had focused since its arrival on parochial education in Ottumwa and across southern Iowa from various downtown sites, purchased 127 acres in northeast Ottumwa during 1907 and constructed there a very large building to house its St. Joseph Academy and a new mother house for the order.

In 1914, the sisters opened Ottumwa's St. Joseph Hospital, for many years the most respected hospital in the region and in 1925, launched St. Joseph Junior College, intended primarily to prepare students to teach.

In 1930, the academy and college were renamed Ottumwa Heights; in 1936, the Ottumwa Heights-affiliated St. Joseph School of Nursing was established; and in 1939, the sisters organized Marycrest College in Davenport as a women's division of St. Ambrose College.

But in October of 1957, when the congregation was flourishing, the Ottumwa Heights building burned and was replaced 1958-1960 with a new building that was state of the art for an institution of higher learning. The many low wings grouped around the Chapel of the Magnificat contained classrooms, dormitories and the mother house, all linked by corridors. It was remarkable for its time and although extensively remodeled and expanded has held up well.

After 1957, however, the fortunes of both the congregation and the college shifted as the number of women entering religious vocations declined precipitously and small private colleges began to experience problems attracting and retaining students. This was also the beginning of the end for Presbyterian-affiliated Parsons College in nearby Fairfield that gained nationwide attention as it ballooned from 400 to 5,000 students under the leadership 1955-1967 of Millard G. Roberts before collapse in 1973 and sale of its campus to followers of Maharashi Mahesh Yogi and its reincarnation as what now is the Maharishi University of Management.

Nothing quite so dramatic happened at Ottumwa Heights, which admitted men as students for the first time in 1967. The college graduated its final class in 1979 and organizers of Iowa's expanding community college system began to eye the site as a home for a new campus of Indian Hills Community College, then concentrated in Centerville.

That sale was arranged in 1981, and in 1982, the Sisters of Humility moved to a new mother house in Davenport --- 105 years after their arrival in Ottumwa. St. Joseph Hospital was sold in 1988. As the years passed, Marycrest College also foundered and closed after its sale to a private group.


So sunset in Ottumwa was near too for the Congregation of the Humility of Mary as Jeanette and I sat in the Magnificat Chapel on that late fall afternoon more than 30 years ago now.

Today, the great north doors of the chapel are no longer used and access to what now is the Indian Hills library is through a side door from a cloister-like corridor into a high narrow space that still allows the stained glass flanking the old entrance to be seen.

The library fills the nave of the chapel, where ceilings have been lowered substantially, although it is a pleasant place.

Through doors at the south end of the library, however, is a soaring space of polished pale marble and stained glass, once the chancel of the chapel but now a gallery where bright contemporary works by artists at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, were displayed Monday. The iconography of what was the reredos remains.

I shared that space Monday with a young Indian Hills student eager to talk and we chatted about art, his goals and what this place had been. I suggested that he visit the sisters someday at the convent cemetery --- now unattractively jammed up against a college maintenance area. I don't think they have many visitors nowadays. Sisters have not been buried here since the move to Davenport.

Frankly, Mt. Olivet Cemetery is a depressing place --- and cemeteries rarely depress me. It seems to reflect a sad end for a rich chapter in southern Iowa's religious life.

But the Indian Hills campus, punctuated with well-designed new buildings and lots of parking lots, is a busy and lively place. I really liked it and I suspect that many of the sisters in repose on its fringe, a good distance now from their new mother house, would too.

If it had not been for Michael W. Lemberger's and Leigh Michaels' 2007 "St. Patrick's, Georgetown, Iowa," I would have had to spend days sifting through my notes and poking around online to find the dates and chronology of St. Patrick's. PBL Limited, based in Ottumwa, has published this and quite a number of other highly interesting books about the history of southern Iowa and beyond. If you're interested in such things, you'll be interested in PBL's Web site,, where all sorts of good stuff can be ordered.

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