The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

Local News

September 17, 2009

St. Irenaeus: A legacy in danger

Clinton’s oldest Catholic church will likely face demolition without community action

CLINTON — A sign over the main doorway states, “St. Irenaeus: God’s glory is people fully alive.” But there isn’t much life about the place today.

On the grounds of St. Irenaeus Church at 2811 N. Second St., a weathered statue of Christ stands with a hand to its heart, and the other extended in beckoning. And yet the sanctuary is deserted, and the garden overgrown.

A handful of pigeons trill to themselves on the peak of the roof. Another alights atop the cross on the south steeple. In the 1970s, the adjacent steeple’s cross had to be restored to its perch after a storm knocked it down. The north cross is gone again, along with the sounds of Scripture readings, singing and organ music that once filled the church.

Since its final Mass on June 28 of last year, St. Irenaeus, the oldest Catholic church in Clinton, has sat empty. Parishioners came that day to say goodbye to the Lyons District church, holding a farewell picnic on the grounds and walking through the building one last time before it was locked up.

Now, the 145-year-old community landmark overlooking the Mississippi River could face demolition if no action is taken to find a suitable use for it. The church was one of five in use by Clinton’s Catholic parishes until a consolidation of the five parishes in 1990, which culminated in a move to a universal worship center this year.

The oldest of the five churches, St. Irenaeus is the last to find its fate, and the Clinton County Historical Society is leading the effort to save it.

“No one wants to see St. Irenaeus go down,” said Jan Hansen, a member and volunteer of the society. “To come across that north end bridge, and not see those gorgeous spires there, would be such a loss to the city. It breaks my heart to think of it.”

‘A tremendous undertaking’

The Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace Parish moved in March into its new $7-million facility off Mill Creek Parkway. As the parish planned for and built the new church, they began the process of deciding what was to be done with the five remaining churches: St. Boniface, St. Irenaeus, St. Mary’s, St. Patrick’s and Sacred Heart.

Sacred Heart Church, built in 1891, was kept and turned into a chapel for use by the parish’s school system. A group of parishioners are in the process of forming a non-profit organization to preserve the 1908 St. Boniface Church building as a religious heritage museum.

In 2005, the parish demolished the 100-year-old St. Patrick Church building and have since sold the lot where it was located. The demolition of the 1884 St. Mary Church building followed in August. The parish is still determining what to do with the properties related to the church.

The parish tried unsuccessfully to find a buyer for St. Irenaeus after forming a property abatement committee in November 2007. In August 2008, the Clinton County Historical Society approached the parish with an offer to purchase the building for $1 and find an appropriate new use for it.

Dave Schnier, business manager for Prince of Peach Parish, said the parish was still looking at other options for the building last year, but is now seriously considering the society’s plans for St. Irenaeus.

“After the church was built and none of these other construction ideas came to fruition, we re-established communications with the county historical society and said, ‘Yeah, we’re willing to reconsider your offer,’” said Schnier, who was a member of St. Irenaeus as a boy.

Restrictions are in place regarding the church’s future use. While it can be used for non-religious, non-Catholic purposes, it cannot be used for what the parish calls “sordid purposes,” such as a bar, dance hall, casino or adult bookstore.

“It’s got to be for a use that is not offensive to our community,” said Father Tony Herold, pastor of Prince of Peace Parish. “If the historical society can’t take it, we may be forced to demolish it. We’re open to other options, but we certainly haven’t had any.”

“In the past, it had been the preference of the diocese to see churches torn down, not sold,” said Schnier. “It’s very difficult to find a re-use for a church, especially a building of that size.”

The parish and historical society have not entered into any formal negotiations for the space, and the historical society’s final plan for the building would have to go through higher approval than the parish.

“Once we hear back from the historical society, our parish would need to see corporate approval of the Bishop of the Diocese of Davenport,” said Schnier.

The historical society is willing to work with the restrictions on the building’s use, but the cost of the St. Irenaeus project would be insurmountable if the society was to take it on alone. The Clinton County Historical Society has a regular staff of 8-10 unpaid volunteers. It runs with support from fundraising events and the donations of about 200 members. The collection at its 601 South First St. museum is almost entirely donated from the community.

“This is a tremendous undertaking,” said Don Dethmann, president of the historical society. “We can acquire the building easily, but it’s the restructuring and the rehabilitation costs that we’d like to have the community involved with. It’s up to the community to try and save it. It’s a wonderful building, a lot of heritage there. It’s been there for generations.”

From cabin to cathedral

According to documentation from the historical society, Bishop Matthew Loras of Dubuque was the first to offer Mass in Lyons, first meeting in 1848 with a group in a community member’s log home. Members of the clergy visited the area regularly until Bishop Loras assigned Father Frederic Cyrille Jean to be the first permanent pastor of the church parish that would become St. Irenaeus.

Father Jean, a French missionary who completed his seminary training in Lyons, France, started work on building a church immediately after his arrival, completing the first building in 1852. The congregation went on to outgrow that building and two others before construction on the present building was started in 1864.

Numerous members of the parish assisted with the building construction. Yellow limestone was mined from quarries north of the city, transported on barges down the Mississippi River and hauled by horse-drawn carts to the site. A ramping system similar to the one used in constructing the Egyptian Pyramids was used to move stones to the top of the walls.

The Gothic-style church, named and modeled after the Cathedral of St. Irenaeus in Lyons, France, was completed in 1871 at a cost of $45,000. At 130 by 60 feet, the building was large enough to accommodate the growing parish.

Father Jean traveled to France shortly before the church was finished, bringing back with him an ornate golden chandelier modeled after the crown of France, a gift from the Bonaparte family to the parish to be used as the sanctuary lamp.

In the 1860s, much of the German population of the parish left to form their own separate congregation, eventually constructing the current St. Boniface building. After the migration, St. Irenaeus mainly served an Irish congregation. What looks like a clover leaf is carved out of the stone arch of the main entrance, possibly hearkening back to the church’s ethnic heritage.

In 1906, the church entrance was reversed from the east side to its current location on the west side of the building. The church was originally built with its entrance facing what was then Fifth Street and is now Roosevelt Street. After North Second Street became the thoroughfare through the city, church authorities reversed the entrances and interior of the church so it would be more easily accessible from the main street and trolley.

In the 1940s, the church interior underwent a massive remodeling effort. The walls were coated with simulated stone to match the limestone exterior of the church, Gothic-style chandeliers were hung, lighted Stations of the Cross were installed along the walls of the sanctuary and the ceiling was decorated with simulated beams. The actual support of the 50-foot-high ceiling comes from the buttresses along the exterior of the church.

In the 1960s and 70s, the basement of the church underwent expansion and renovations. The lower level now contains a full kitchen, a bingo hall, two meeting rooms and restrooms.

Today, St. Irenaeus’ 450-seat sanctuary is empty. The altars, pipe organ, statues and other relics are gone. Prince of Peace used a variety of relics from the five former parish churches in its new building, including St. Irenaeus’ sanctuary lamp and a set of the Stations of the Cross that hung in the church before later being replaced by the lighted stations.

Prince of Peace officials say St. Irenaeus still has its original pews. The lighted Stations of the Cross are still there, along with the original stained glass windows. Twelve of the windows, on the north and south walls of the sanctuary, depict the Twelve Apostles, and a circular window of the Holy Family adorns the wall above the spot where the high altar once stood.

Even stripped bare of its relics, says Jan Hansen, the sanctuary retains the majesty of its past.

“I had walked in and expected, with everything gone, to have it just lose its identity. I really did,” said Hansen, adding, “It took my breath away, to be really honest with you. It’s gorgeous in there.”

Although she never belonged to St. Irenaeus, Hansen attended the church frequently in years past since her husband’s family lived across the street.

“I went to church there, a lot. Everybody in Clinton did,” she said. “And there are people, whether they’re Catholic or not, who want to see it saved.”

A plea to the community

The Clinton County Historical Society is holding a public forum Sunday at St. Irenaeus. They will provide tours of the church from 1 to 2 p.m., and the discussion will start at 2 p.m. The forum will focus on ideas for saving the church and possible future uses for the building.

“We’re supporting whatever it takes to save the building,” said Hansen. “There’s a lot of ideas out there, but we would rather they came from the public. Let’s see what the public is talking about. We want the chance to hear what people want to do and what they think.”

If the forum gathers enough public interest, the society will form a committee made up of members from the community and museum so they can go back to Prince of Peace Parish with a clear proposal for the building.

“If there is no public support, we cannot take it,” said Hansen. “That’s the bottom line. I keep telling people, ‘Volunteers and dollars.’ It’s got to be a community that comes together.”

Hansen reiterated that, without action, the church faces a grim future, probably demolition like St. Mary’s and St. Patrick’s.

“What I think we here at the museum don’t want to have happen, is so many things go down, and people come in here and say, ‘And nobody did anything to save it.’ But we can’t save it without the public supporting it.”

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