Ottumwa justifiably calls itself “the city of Bridges” because of the number of structures, some interesting and others not, that span the Des Moines River to connect its halves. I’d call it the city of churches, too, however --- to recognize the wonderful confections of many denominations that remain downtown.
St. Mary’s Roman Catholic, a dramatic and vast last gasp of pared down gothic revival dating from 1930, has pride of place in Ottumwa because of size and location. But Trinity Episcopal, looking down its more traditional gothic revival nose from the hilltop above, is by far the finest church building in the city --- absolutely stunning and virtually unaltered.
Several of us drove down Sunday after Morning Prayer at St. Andrew’s --- crammed in the interests of economy and companionability like so many pumpkin-pie-bearing sardines into Suzie’s and Mel’s super duper “King Ranch” Ford truck --- the worst nightmare of any Prius it might encounter along Highway 34. We’ve been talking about about working together more in the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa’s South Central Chapter --- parishes in Chariton, Ottumwa, Albia and Oskaloosa --- and Trinity stepped up to the plate first by inviting us all down for a Thanksgiving Eucharist followed by Thanksgiving dinner.
The service was great, as was the sermon (the Rev. Vincent Bete, transplanted to Iowa from the Philippines, has to be one of the most likable and enthusiastic of Iowa’s clergy). Same for the music --- including a vested choir. The food that followed in the parish hall was wonderful as was the fellowship, but I’m obsessed by buildings and can’t get over this one.
Trinity was completed in 1895 to a design by Davenport architect Edward Hammatt at the intersection of Fifth and Market streets in a triumphalist residential neighborhood just below the crest of the bluffs that soar above the Des Moines and edge downtown to the north and east. Built into the bluff, it gives the impression from Fifth Street of a rather low building dominated by a three-story tower, but from the southwest two full stories are exposed, giving the lower-level Parish Hall full-length windows.
Trinity's neighborhood, the Fifth Street Historic District, was and remains an entriely appropriate setting for the building. These are some of the houses across Fifth Street northeast of the church.
The design theory of church buildings can give you a headache if you start trying to figure out the principal motive behind their construction. In the higher church tradition, was it to the greater glory of God or was it to the greater glory of those who built it? In the end it doesn’t matter --- if the result is satisfying. I always blame ugly on the builders; credit God with the glorious ones like Trinity.
Everything here points up --- the roof lines, the peaked arches of windows and doors and that dramatic tower pointing like a forefinger to heaven. The front door --- massive and wood with strap hinges and, of course, painted Episcopalian red --- are exactly what you’d expect (and be disappointed not to find).
Inside, the building is very large but welcoming below its arched wood-paneled roof. Everything points toward the apsidal end of the chancel, the liturgical east, where curves embrace the altar.
The stained glass here is interesting and in some cases spectacular. Unlike many triumphalist churches where the glass was installed as a unit to create often beautiful but sometimes tedious uniformity, the glass here is of various dates and styles --- creating a gallery effect in which its necessary to approach each window separately.
The four large windows at the rear of the nave, all rather simple, probably were original equipment. The four windows flanking the front of the nave most likely were installed later as memorials or for other reasons, and are much more interesting. This is my favorite, a memorial depiction (I think) of the Archangel Gabriel. The colors are wonderful; the window glows no matter the quality of the light outside.
Its neighbor to the left may be the most elaborate of the nave windows and is quite beautiful --- although I still like Gabriel better (nothing personal).
Four smaller windows flank the altar, each I would say installed at different times. I was in a hurry and not too focused, so this was the only one of those windows that I took a marginally successful photo of. The others are darker and richer.
My favorite Gabriel window picks up the colors of the stunning and eminently Victorian arch in the northwest end of the nave, soaring over doors into the narthex.
It’s a wonderful church building. If you’re in Ottumwa look it up and walk around it. Better yet, show up on a Sunday morning, come inside and worship with the congregation. Holy Eucharist begins at 10:45 a.m.
If your interests are photography, keep in mind that this is a challenging church to photograph because of its location. It tends to be obscured by trees in the summer and to do this right, I’d have needed to go back several times at different hours of the day. Maybe someday!
We arrived back in Chariton just in time for friends to track me down and load me up so we could head to Pella for performances in Douwstra Audtorium of Vivaldi’s “Gloria” and Schubert’s “Symphony No. 9” by the College-Community Chorus and College-Community Orchestra at Central College.
Like the quality of the architecture and worship in Ottumwa, the quality of the performances in Pella was exceptional. All in all, it was a darned good day down here in the southern hills.