Monday, March 02, 2015

On the road to Albia's Grace Church

Bishop Alan Scarfe confirms Rick Clark, assisted by the Rev. Fred Steinbach.

St. Andrew's hit the road Sunday, since the bishop (the Rt. Rev. Alan Scarfe) was making his regular visit to our sister parish, Grace of Albia, and one of our own (Rick Clark) was to be confirmed --- only bishops confirm in the Episcopal Church, so one way or another he or she has to be rounded up for the occasion.

The service, the food, the fellowship --- and the homily --- were outstanding; only one minor glitch. The bishop had misplaced his red mitre (that pointed hat) which ordinarily would have been worn for a celebratory occasion, even during Lent. He figured it must have been left behind in Mason City the previous Sunday when he visited St. John's.

Grace Church's Van Hunt (left) and the Rev. Frederick L. Steinbach.

I was happy, too, because it gave me good reason to visit little Grace Church, which is a favorite building of mine and one of the oldest church buildings in continuous use in the south of Iowa. Built about 1869, it is older than any Lucas County church and, in Monroe County, second only to St. Patrick's of Georgetown, that magnificent stone building on the prairie midway between Russell and Albia.

How about that Ogee arch?

I'm especially fond of the ogee arch that divides nave from chancel. You just don't see many of these. If you look carefully, you'll see that the nave still has it's original beadboard ceiling, too.

The chancel may be a later addition and certainly the original building would have had clear glass windows rather than stained glass --- what's in place now probably dates from the first decade of the 20th century. But the building is very similar to what was built nearly 150 years ago.

The pews, bishop's chair and double chair that provides seating for priest and lector came to Grace Church, perhaps during the 1960s, from St. John's Episcopal Church in Garden Grove, which by that time had closed and was scheduled for demolition.

The Grace building also has the distinction of of being the first home not only of Albia Episcopalians, but also of what now is the St. Mary's Catholic parish, estabished during 1874 as a mission of Georgetown St. Patrick's.

The man largely responsible for the Grace building was the Rev. Isaac Peter Labagh, who had been booted from his native Reformed denomination and found a home among Episcopalians. An astonishingly energetic man, he had built Episcopal churches in New York City and Illinois before taking charge of the episcopal parish in Fairfield, Iowa, during the early 1860s.

After the Civil War ended, he set to work along the route of Burlington & Missouri River Railroad, then being built west from Ottumwa (later the C.B.&Q, now Burlington Northern & Santa Fe). Grace Church was first, then St. Mark's in the brand new town of Russell, then St. Andrew's of Chariton, organized during 1867.

Labagh also was astute financially and had considerable resources of his own, which he tended to pour into his mission work. He advanced much of the money needed to build Grace Church and built St. Mark's in Russell in partnership with the redoubtable Elizabeth E. Fulkerson Hammer. Of the three, only the St. Andrew's building was funded by its own parishioners, who included the legendary Smith H. and Annie Mallory.

Unfortunately, the Rev. Mr. Labagh died unexpectedly during December of 1869 in Fairfield, where a son lived, and his heirs were less generous. St. Mark's in Russell closed and the property was sold off.

In Albia, the parish mortgaged itself to the hilt to pay off the heirs and some years later, about 1873, "the organization succumbed to financial embarrassment," as one of the old Monroe County histories put it. In other words, the mortgage was foreclosed upon.

During 1874 the building was sold to organizers of the Catholic mission and eventually became St. Mary's. St. Mary's occupied the building until after the turn of the 20th century, perhaps adding the chancel and almost certainly the stained glass. Then a new and larger church was built nearby and Albia's Episcopalians, who had been meeting in public halls since the 1870s, bought their old home back.

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