St. Mary's Church and Rectory

St. Mary's Catholic Church is a parish of the Diocese of Davenport located at 220 E. Jefferson St. in Iowa City, Iowa. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as St. Mary's Church and Rectory. The parish's first rectory, which is now a private home, is also listed on the NRHP as St. Mary's Rectory. It is located a few blocks to the east of the present church location at 610 E. Jefferson St.


The first Mass in what is now Iowa City was celebrated by frontier missionary Rev. Samuel Charles Mazzuchelli, OP on December 20, 1840. It was attended by 28 people in a building that doubled as a private home and a hotel, which was owned by Fred Haberstroh. The University of Iowa’s School of Business is currently on that location. The previous day Mazzuchelli had arrived from St. Paul’s Church in Burlington and bought two lots for $2,000 on which the church and rectory stand today.

St Mary's parish was established by Mazzuchelli the following year, 1841, and he designed a small frame building that would serve as a church. The cornerstone for the new church was laid on July 12, 1841 by Bishop Mathias Loras of Dubuque. The building was largely completed by 1842, and several priests, including the Rev. J.A.M. Pelamourgues from St. Anthony’s in Davenport celebrated Mass in the new church. In 1844 the parish had grown to about 70 families and the Rev. Anthony Godfert was assigned the parish’s first pastor. In 1844 he started the parish’s first school in the basement of the church, with Miss Noma O’Connor as the first teacher.

A year later he established St. Joseph Cemetery to the northeast of the city. Godfert left the parish in 1846 and the parish was served by visiting clergy again for the next two years. Father Pelamourgues came again, as did J. G. Perodin, Joseph Cretin and John George Alleman. In 1848 the Rev. F.B. Poyet was named pastor and the parish has not been without a pastor since then. In the 1850s the parish’s first choir was organized and a gallery was added to the interior of the church. In 1862 St. Francis Xavier Church was established for the pastoral care of Bohemian immigrants. The church burned to the ground in 1869 and the parishioners returned to St. Mary’s

The Rev. William Emonds became pastor in 1858. During his pastorate of 32 years saw the expansion of Catholic education and the building of the present church. He also served more than the Iowa City parish. He is credited with establishing 44 parishes, and built churches in many of them.

The Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary arrived in Iowa City in 1860 to teach at St. Mary’s. St. Agatha’s Seminary, a school for girls, opened in 1861. In 1865 St. Joseph Institute, a school for advanced learning was established by Father Emonds. It was taught by lay teachers and closed around 1890.

Initially, Father Emonds extended the original church to the north for more space, but it became obvious a new church was needed. The cornerstone for the present church was laid on October 27, 1867. Hugh V. Gildea was contracted to build the new church. The new building was built over the old church as the parish continued to worship there. When the new building's roof was completed the old structure was torn down. It took two years to build the church, although the tall spire would be completed at a later date. By the time it was dedicated the main altar, pews, pulpit and stained glass windows were in place. The new church was dedicated by Bishop John Hennessey of Dubuque on August 15, 1869. It was the first consecrated church in the Diocese of Dubuque. The construction costs of the new church were $75,000.

The church was constructed of red brick in the Romanesque Revival style. It features a large open interior without columns. The tall wooden high altar features a painting of the Visitation, which is flanked by statues of St. Patrick and St. Boniface. The altar of the Blessed Virgin Mary was installed in 1872. The tower was completed in 1873 and the spire and cross were added in 1874. The Moline pipe organ, which is still in use, was installed in 1883. A 17-bell carillon was added to the tower in 1885. The Stations of the Cross were purchased by Father Emonds on one of his trips back to his native Germany.

St. Mary’s parish was divided when other parishes were established in Iowa City. St. Patrick’s was founded in 1872 and church was built a few blocks south of St. Mary’s in 1879. Another parish to serve the Bohemian community was established in 1891 when St. Wenceslaus was founded. St. Thomas More was founded in 1944 as the Newman Center before it became as independent parish.

The parish became a part of the Diocese of Davenport when it was established in 1881. The parish’s rectory was moved four blocks to the east in 1891 by the Rev. John F. Kempker and the following year the present rectory was built during the pastorate of Msgr. A.J. Schulte, who would serve the parish for nearly 50 years. The rectory was designed to match the church. It was also built of brick and features large rounded arches on the front porch. The house was built for $8,000.

In 1892 the parish acquired property on the corner of Clinton and Jefferson Streets. The cornerstone for the new school was laid on September 11, 1892 on that location. The new school opened in 1893 with Franciscan Sisters teaching there until 1895, when the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary again started teaching in the school. In 1897 high school grades were added to the school, and it was the first Catholic high school in Iowa to be accredited by the State University of Iowa. In 1911 an addition was built onto the school, which contained an auditorium and cafeteria. A convent was also built to house the sisters. It was replaced by the current building, now a part of the Newman Center, in 1926. The new convent was built for $33,000. St. Mary’s and St. Patrick’s high schools were consolidated in 1958 when Regina High School was opened. The St. Mary’s School building started to deteriorate, and it was closed in 1968. The school itself consolidated with the school at St. Patrick’s and used its building. The sisters remained in the St. Mary’s Convent. In 1975 the St. Mary’s school buildings and convent were sold to the diocese for use by the Newman Center. In the early 1990s an addition was made to Regina High School and the elementary and junior high school grades are moved from St. Patrick’s.

Renovations were done to the church building in 1908 under Msgr. Schulte. The work included sixteen buttresses to strengthen the building, a new cross and spire were built, a basement was dug below the church, and the church interior was redecorated. The church was once again redecorated for the parish centennial in 1941 during the pastorate of Msgr. Carl Meinberg. The present pews were added at that time. Liturgical changes were made after the Second Vatican Council during the pastorate of the Rev. John Morrissey. Changes included a new altar so the priest could face the congregation. Masses were now celebrated in English rather than Latin. Another renovation of the church occurred in early 1980s under the leadership of the Rev. Henry Griener. The pipe organ was rebuilt in 1981. A parish hall was built in the basement of the church in 1982, and the church interior was redecorated in 1983. The church renovation included removal of the communion rail, new carpet, reconciliation rooms, altar, ambo and chairs. The tabernacle was moved from the high altar to a side altar. Another redecorating project occurred around 2000 by the Rev. Kenneth Kunz, which included moving the baptismal font near the front door and new carpeting.

The parish council was initiated by Father Morrissey in 1969. From 1971-1980, Father Morrissey and the Rev. Carlos Leveling served the parish as co-pastors. In 1986 the concept of sacrificial giving was introduced to the parish and it started the practice of tithing a percentage of the parish income. About the same time the parish offices were moved out of the rectory to a house just east of the church. In 1988 the church tower was reconstructed. Another house was added to the parish offices and the two buildings were renovated for expanded office space by the Rev. Thomas Doyle in 1992. At the same time the parish hired its first youth minister. Today, approximately 1700 families belong to the parish.

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