Friday, February 11, 2011

Biggest fish, smallest church

Iowa has, or so we claim, the world's biggest catfish and the world's smallest church. The operative word here is "claim." We don't really believe any of this.

Sadly, I do not have a photo of the catfish on my hard drive --- even though there was a time when I drove by it two or three times every week (familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt, but it certainly does encourage inattention). If you want to visit, the big fish is located at the north end of main street in Crystal Lake, the town, located on the south shore of Crystal Lake, the lake, in Hancock County in north central Iowa.

Photos of the little church, officially the Chapel of St. Anthony of Padua, I do have --- although I've only been there a couple of times.

St. Anthony's is located near the small town of Festina in Winneshiek County, one of Iowa's most northeasterly, bordered on the north by Minnesota and separated from the Mississippi only by Allamakee, awash in scenery, fascinating little places and people of Norwegian, Czech, Slovak and other descents. Decorah, home of Luther College and Vesterheim, is the county seat as well as Vatican City for Iowa's Norwegian Lutherans (just kidding, Lutherans have enough problems without a pope to contend with).

Most of St. Anthony's story is told by the classy sign out front, which reads as follows: "On this site in 1849 the first Catholic Mission north of Dubuque was built of logs. In 1885, nearby landowners quarried stone and built the little chapel. Construction resulted from a vow by Johann Gaertner's mother to build a chapel should her son, who was drafted into the French army and served under Napoleon, return safely from the Russian campaign. Relatives of Frank Huber maintain the chapel and grounds, which includes the grave of Johann Gaertner."

To flesh that explanation out a little, Johann Gaertner's mother was unable to fulfill her vow. But Johann remembered it when he came first to the United States and then, during 1848-49 to Winneshiek County. His daughter and son-in-law, Mary Ann and Frank Joseph Huber, provided the nudge --- when Johann was 92 --- to actually build the chapel. He donated $75 to pay for needed lumber, Joseph Spielman added $20 toward purchase of a bell, stone was quarried nearby and the Hubers paid the balance. The chapel still is maintained by Huber descendants although open to all. The original Huber log cabin was moved to a site near the church in the late 1990s.

The chapel proper is 14 by 20 feet and the steeple, added in 1888, 40 feet tall. Mary Ann Huber donated the stained glass, installed in 1903. The chapel seats eight.

It became trendy during the latter part of the 20th century to start scattering tiny churches across the landscape (the chapel at Bethlehem in Wayne County and at Little Flock, just over the county line east in Appanoose are two southern Iowa examples). And so, any claims St. Anthony's had to being the smallest were dissipated. But because it was constructed specifically as a place of devotion rather than as an afterthought and is so perfect, it remains the most satisfying.

My most memorable visit, with a friend, occurred very early one morning a good many years ago after a night spent nearby with no one else around and no sounds in the background other than birds and the wind. It was magic.

St. Anthony's is affiliated with the Church of Our Lady of Seven Dolors (that translates as seven sorrows, not as the seven-dollar church by the way) in Festina and I believe Mass still is celebrated here once a year on the Sunday closest to June 13, the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua.

No comments: