St. Ambrose Cathedral

St. Ambrose Cathedral is the cathedral parish of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Des Moines, and is located at 607 High Street in Des Moines, Iowa in the center of the city. The facility is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as St. Ambrose Cathedral and Rectory.


The first Mass in what would become the city of Des Moines was celebrated in a log hut in 1851 at Fort Des Moines by Father Alexander Hattenberger, a priest from Ottumwa, Iowa. At the time, Des Moines was part of the Diocese of Dubuque, which covered the entire state of Iowa. Other priests visited the Des Moines area from time to time, including: the Revs. Timothy Mullen, John Kreckel and Louis De Cailly. In 1856, one year after the Iowa Legislature voted to move the capitol from Iowa City to its present location in Des Moines, the first St. Ambrose Church was built on land purchased by Father De Cailly. The church was built by the Rev. George Plathe, who was the first resident priest in Des Moines. It measured 40 by 24 feet. The Rev. John F. Brazil became pastor in 1861, and he built a school in 1863.

St. Ambrose remained Des Moines' only Catholic church until 1869 when the Rev. Nicholas Sassel established St. Mary's to serve the pastoral needs of the city's German community. Des Moines became a part of the Diocese of Davenport when it was established in 1881.

Father Brazil started construction of the present church in 1890 and it was completed by the Rev. Michael Flavin in 1891. Bishop Henry Cosgrove dedicated the church on October 11 of the same year. The church and rectory were both designed in the Romanesque Revival style and built of Bedford stone. The interior is a large open expanse, free of pillars. James J. Egan of Chicago was the architect. He designed Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport at the same time. St. Ambrose Church was chosen to be the cathedral of the Diocese of Des Moines when it was established by Pope St. Pius X on August 12, 1911.

A significant renovation of the cathedral took place in the 1940’s which added the Chapel of Our Lady to the rear of the building, and the installation of the present stained glass windows. The windows in the cathedral depict the establishment of the Catholic faith in the United States, the State of Iowa and the Diocese of Des Moines. The rose window in the Chapel of Our Lady depict the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The altar, ambo and chair in the chapel were used by Pope John Paul II during a Mass he celebrated at his historic visit to Living History Farms in 1979.

A large-scale renovation of the cathedral was begun in the 1970’s by Bishop Maurice Dingman out of a desire for a better liturgical environment, and because the building was in need of repairs. A process of researching the liturgy, church architecture, and accessing the needs of the parish was put in place as a part of the larger planning process. The people of the entire diocese were also invited to participate in this process. The cathedral’s interior was subsequently repainted in the early years of the 21st century.

Building Activity

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