St. Irenaeus Catholic Church was the site of a public forum Sunday to discuss how the building can be saved from demolition and rehabilitated.

The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

CLINTON — About 50 people attended a forum Sunday afternoon at St. Irenaeus Catholic Church to discuss how the building can be saved from demolition and rehabilitated for future use.

The Clinton County Historical Society hosted tours before the discussion at the church, located at 2811 N. Second St., to gather community input on the building. The society is negotiating with Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace Parish to purchase the 1864 building, the oldest Catholic church in Clinton, from the parish for $1 and find an appropriate new use for it.

“It’s a wonderful building,” said Don Dethmann, president of the historical society. “It’s solid built. The Stations are immaculate. The altars are gone, but it’s still a church building.”

Historical society members say obtaining the building and the entire block where it’s located is the easy part. The difficulty lies in getting enough volunteers and financial backing to bolster the effort to rehabilitate the building and run it throughout its future use.

“When I talk about funds, I’m not talking about bake sales or rummage sales,” City Councilman and historical society member Bob Soesbe told the crowd at the forum. “I’m talking about big money.”

Dethmann estimated the cost of rehabilitating the building to be at least $190,000.

“It’s a low estimate,” Dethmann added. “It’ll be expensive, but what a building to preserve.”

Because the historical society is a non-profit organization, it would not have to pay taxes on the space, but would have to pay insurance on the building. Dethmann said some grants may be available to help fund work on the building, but added that grants can take a long time to obtain, and often have to be partially matched with existing funds.

Dethmann and Soesbe spoke to the crowd about the aspects of the building that would require upkeep, including heating, plumbing and electricity. Dethmann said the spires need repair, and that the roof may need attention. He also said mold had been found in the basement and needs to be removed, along with any asbestos used to insulate the basement when it was expanded and remodeled in the 1960s and 1970s. The historical society is looking for local businesses and individuals to volunteer their services to the church project.

Attendees brought up a range of ideas for the space, including using it as a theater, museum, concert hall or art gallery, or opening it for use as a banquet hall. Another idea included focusing on using the basement of the church — which includes restrooms, a bingo hall and two meeting rooms — as a meeting and events facility for the community. One attendee suggested using the sanctuary for non-religious weddings, then catering receptions in the basement. Another suggested setting up a Web site with information on the effort and a place to take online donations for the project.

More than a dozen people signed their names on a list for volunteers that was circulated through the crowd during the forum.

The society will host a public follow-up meeting at the Clinton County Historical Society Museum, 601 S. First St., on Thursday at 6:30 p.m., to see if a committee of historical society and community members can be formed to spearhead the effort to save the church.

During tours before the discussion, people wandered through the sanctuary and climbed a narrow staircase to peer off the balcony. Dozens paused to reflect or take pictures in front of the stained glass windows of the Twelve Apostles and the lighted Stations of the Cross. A few walked around the exterior of the building, capturing memories of St. Irenaeus under Sunday’s overcast gray skies.

“St. Irenaeus is a part of a creation by the people of our immigrant ancestors,” said Mary Ellen Eckelberg, who attended the church since birth and wrote a book about its history. “I’ve been a supporter of this campaign to save St. Irenaeus since the very beginning.”

Eckelberg pointed out the baptismal fount in the church where she was baptized in 1944. She said that` since St. Irenaeus’ last Mass in June 2008, she has not attended church regularly. Eckelberg lives in the former home of Father F. C. Jean, the church’s founding priest.

Bruce Kreider, 30, of Albany, was at the church snapping pictures and looking through the sanctuary with his 2-year-old daughter, Kaedence.

“This is just such a beautiful building,” said Kreider, adding that this was his first time inside. “With the history of it, it would be a shame to see it torn down.”

Dethmann estimated that between 70 and 80 came through to look at the building before the discussion.

He said he was pleased with the turnout at the event, but couldn’t say for certain if it had garnered enough community interest.

“I’d like to say yes, but I can’t say yes,” said Dethmann, adding that a more definite plan will come to fruition after Thursday night’s meeting. “I’m glad we had the response we had today.”

Dethmann said many who attended on Sunday were past members of the church, coming through in case it was their last chance to see the building.

“They’re concerned,” he said. “One lady walked out with tears in her eyes. There were three ladies that were on the kneelers praying, and even though it’s not a church anymore, they still have this prayer at heart.”

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