Community

Faith in the future: Small community of Petersburg faces tall order in preserving ornate church

Saints Peter & Paul Church in Petersburg stands on a hill at the intersection of 160th Street and 300th Avenue. “We know how much our ancestors sacrificed to build this church,” committee member Dan Goedken said Wednesday. “People mortgaged their farms to build this,” his wife, Mary Goedken, said. Now a committee hopes to raise $1.5 million for repairs. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Saints Peter & Paul Church in Petersburg stands on a hill at the intersection of 160th Street and 300th Avenue. “We know how much our ancestors sacrificed to build this church,” committee member Dan Goedken said Wednesday. “People mortgaged their farms to build this,” his wife, Mary Goedken, said. Now a committee hopes to raise $1.5 million for repairs. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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PETERSBURG — Elaine and Dan Wessels have been attending Saints Peter & Paul Church in the unincorporated community of Petersburg, about 10 miles northwest of Dyersville, for decades — Dan since he was born, and Elaine for the last 53 years. They live on a farm that has been in the Wessels family for more than 130 years.

Asked what’s kept him in his hometown all his life, he told the story of breaking his leg in 1973.

“The farmers all came and helped put the crops in. It’s the friendliness of the people. They will help you,” he said. “We’re a very close-knit community.”

Now he and other parishioners of Petersburg’s small Catholic parish are hoping that congenial spirit will help save their beloved church, which many of their ancestors helped build in 1906.

Approaching Petersburg, the gothic spires of the church rise over the hills and sprawling corn and soybean fields of Delaware County.

Inside, the first impression is of soaring arches ascending 45 feet above the pews, framed by elaborately carved stations of the cross. The sanctuary is lighted the jewel tones of tall stained glass windows, which were specially designed for the church and brought by ship from Germany. An intricate alter with three-dimensional scenes of Jesus, apostles and angels towers over the front of the sanctuary, and gilded paint glints along columns and from ceiling murals.

Church member Karen Domeyer was staring up at those murals from the choir loft one Sunday when she noticed their peeling paint. After the service, she came back with her camera and started snapping photos of all the places she found damage.

“When we realized how bad it was, we were physically sick,” she said.

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She and her husband, Rick Domeyer, helped form a renovation committee and started calling contractors, who one by one added to a catalog of needed repairs, starting with the roof, which needs to be replaced.

Inside, water damage has led to sections of blistering paint and crumbling plaster. Some of the ornate stained glass windows are in danger of collapsing as the glass warps and wood frames rot. Plexiglass panels, installed years ago on the exterior of the stained glass windows in an effort to protect them, have become cloudy and scratched; plans call to replace them with glass.

Exterior tuckpointing is needed, as are repairs to the steeples and turrets.

The committee launched the “Treasuring our Past, Preserving Our Future” campaign at the end of April in the hope of raising $1.5 million to cover the repairs and renovations.

Deep roots

That goal is a tall order for Petersburg, which has a population of less than 150. For many of those who live here, however, roots run deep, and they run through the church.

For generations it has marked the community’s baptisms, weddings and funerals, along with its Lenten fish fries and summer picnics.

“It gives us a central location to worship together but also a place to be a community,” Rick Domeyer said. His four children were married in the church, the most recent about a week ago, and all seven of his grandchildren were baptized there.

They were the seventh generation to do so; Domeyer still works the same land the generations before him did, but his farm is a lot bigger than his great-great grandfather’s was — he raises 7,000 hogs a year and grows corn on 280 acres.

“As farms get bigger, get consolidated, our parish numbers are declining,” he said.

The church has 225 families registered as members, and the Rev. Dennis Quint said about half attend on an average Sunday.

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“It indicates the work we have ahead of us. We’re not a parish of thousands of families,” he said.

The diocese in Dubuque offers low-interest loans for renovation projects, but the renovation committee would like to avoid that. The church claims the designation of first consecrated church in the state of Iowa; only churches free of debt could be consecrated, and current congregants take great pride in the fact their forebears built the church debt-free.

“We know how much our ancestors sacrificed to build this church,” said committee member Dan Goedken.

His ancestor’s names are inscribed in the church’s stained glass windows, which bear the legends of families who donated to the church construction.

“People mortgaged their farms to build this,” his wife, Mary Goedken, said.

She is a registered nurse; he farms cattle, hogs, corn, soybeans and alfalfa on the same farm his Goedken ancestors first settled on in 1846.

Dan Goedken and Rick Domeyer also share a great-great grandfather in Peter Domeyer, for whom the village is named.

A place of prayer and a social center

At Wednesday Mass, which is held with both students at Hennessy Catholic School and local community members, Rev. Quint delivered a homily last week on prayer, telling the congregation that beautiful places such as their church are important.

“The images (the statues, alter and murals) trigger the imagination to think of the divine and to ponder our eternal destiny,” he said after the service. “Especially in a day when many churches are merely functional, it’s important to preserve these places that inspire the imagination.”

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The church has had a parish school since before 1890, when about 130 students were enrolled. But this year, Hennessy Catholic School has just 45 students from preschool to sixth grade, and the board made the painful decision to close the school in the face of declining enrollment. The last week of classes starts Monday.

Kristen Goedken, no relation to Dan and Mary Goedken, is on the parish school board, and her four children have attended the school. Next year they will attend St. Francis Xavier, the Catholic school in Dyersville.

That will mean big enough classes for each grade to have its own teacher — they currently have combined classes — as well as access to newer technology and the ability to participate in more things like sports, band and choir, said church member Judy Boeckenstedt. Still, she said, “it’s bittersweet.”

The school is just the latest establishment in Petersburg to close. Twice a week, after Wednesday and Sunday Mass, a group of longtime parishioners, including the Wessels, gather for coffee and conversation at The Big House, a bar and restaurant across the street from the church.

On Wednesday, they reminisced about the general store, gas station, appliance store and machine repair shop, all long-since gone. People aren’t building new houses here anymore, Elaine Wessels said, and with fewer and fewer amenities, it’s not an attractive place to retire. Without a school, it won’t be an attractive place for younger families, either.

“We’re not going to get more people,” Wessels said. “The church is our future.”

Karen Domeyer nodded.

“I think that’s why preserving the church is so important. If we lose that, we lose us. The church is the glue that holds us together.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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