The Final Days: 157-year-old parish closing - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

The Final Days: 157-year-old parish closing


DUBUQUE (KWWL) -- This week, a 157-year parish legacy ends as Saint Mary's Catholic Church in Dubuque closes its doors. Since 2000, 34 parishes have closed in the Archdiocese of Dubuque, which covers 30 counties in northeast Iowa.

Officials tell us three-quarters of those 34 parishes have had less than 150 families at the time of closing. They say declining numbers, deteriorating facilities, financial concerns, and a lack of priests has contributed to the closings.

Last summer, St. Mary's parish council decided the church needed to close because of financial problems. Archdiocese officials say the parish is currently $330,000 in debt.

In the final days of St. Mary's, KWWL visited with present and past parishioners about memories and moving ahead.

The final Sunday mass at Saint Mary's was May 23. After nearly 150 years, the church will close.

"The blessed mother will be with us today, and the days ahead of us as we make this transition," Father Steven Rosonke said, addressing the parishioners.

Hundreds attended the last Sunday mass, as thousands have done since German immigrants built the church during the Civil War.

"They vowed that they would build the finest church west of the Mississippi," Unofficial parish historian Martha Lundh said.

She tells us even in the 1860s, St. Mary's had some financial difficulties to deal with.

"The men and the boys dug the foundation. They did it in the evening. When they finished, they checked their building fund. They only had three dollars and three cents left," Lundh said.

It took fundraising and more than 100 years, but by 1967, St. Mary's was how we know it today: A high Victorian gothic church with surrounding buildings which now house groups like the Presentation Lantern Center and Maria House.

"[The architect] styled the church after Salisbury Cathedral in England," Lundh said.

The church includes stained glass windows, white marble, statuary, a mural, gold leafing, the story of Mary's life in pictures.

"It's such a treasure. I hate to see it closed. As I'm interested in history, it has a rich history, and the beauty of it. It is one of the finest churches," Lundh said.

Donald Pfohl is a lontime parishioner, baptized and married in the church.

"It's the history of Dubuque. It's one of the first churches that was started here," Pfohl said.

He has seen the church through ups and downs, like an aging parish, a declining budget, and fewer Catholics in town.

"There's too many churches for the amount of Catholics," Pfohl said.

He's been working on the closing committee and helping decide what to do with the property next. Pfohl says the property, including the church itself, has been shown a few times to potential buyers.

"There's a little sadness that it's closing, but I'm part of the closing committee, so it's been on me since last September working that way, so I've had a long time to think about it," Pfohl said.

Frank Honigman has a lot of memories from within the church walls, and the surrounding buildings.

"I probably started [going to St. Mary's] in 1935 or 6. I went to grade school here, right across the street," Honigman said. "I remember my old classmates back in the 30s and 40s. I see a few of them yet that come to church on Sunday."

Down to the last Sunday, Honigman ushered at mass, all the while knowing, like others, the end was in sight.

"It's just something that's got to happen, I guess," Honigman said. "I thought it was going to come because each year, we went in debt. And you can only do that so long, and the money wasn't there to repair the church, so I think they made the correct decision."

While the closing is certain to some, there is an ongoing effort to keep the church open as a Catholic institution. Theresa Crabill, a past parishioner, and others are working on that project.

"We've turned in over 1,000 signatures to the archbishop already, and we are still continuing to collect signatures," Crabill said.

It's gone beyond a petition, with a website dedicated to saving the church, and a solution proposed to the archbishop.

"The Institute of Christ the King is a Catholic organization. They bring their own Catholic priest here. They do their own fundraising for restoration projects," Crabill explained.

Christ the King would have to be invited in by and work under the guidance of the archbishop. It's a hope Crabill and others are holding out hope for.

"As part of German descent, I can help do something to maybe bring light to this, that we help save this building," Crabill said.

Though there is an effort to save Saint Mary's, the reality for now: The church will close.

"We'll miss it, and I think it'll sink in as we get away from it, we'll miss it of course. Takes a while to sink in," Honigman said.

"There's no simple way to go through it. What we need to do now is simply move forward. Go right through the valley of death," Rosonke said, likening dealing with the church closing to dealing with a death.

The final mass will be Tuesday, May 25 at 6 p.m. Archbishop Jerome Hanus will be leading the ceremony.

Online Reporter: Jamie Grey

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