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Editor's note: Each week we will literally throw a dart at a map of Eastern Iowa. Where the dart lands, we'll head in search of a story. We hope to discover and share stories of people and places we might not ordinarily take note of, but who make our communities special.
Walking into Old St. Michael's Church, in the small town of Holbrook, just south of Amana, is like stepping foot into historic Ireland.
The church was built in 1867 as the home for the Old Man's Creek Irish Settlement that started the parish in 1843. For many years, the church was a worship and gathering space for Irish immigrants and Catholics from in and around Williamsburg, Parnell and other surrounding small towns.
But when the parish was closed in 1996, and the church was slated for demolition, a group of concerned citizens stepped in to save the community treasure.
Today, the church, cemetery and social hall - located just 150 yards down the road - are maintained by the Friends of Old St. Michael's. The group, about 650 families strong, purchased the church in 1996 and have been working to maintain it ever since.
'It is so old and so architecturally important and it would be too much of a loss for the people who were here,” said Stephen Hanson, who along with his wife Loretta and second cousin Gerry volunteer with the Friends of Old St. Michael's.
The group raises money on an ongoing basis to not only care for and heat the building but also work on restoration projects. So far they have put a new roof on the church and the social hall, and done exterior brick work. They have future projects, such as working on the walls and the stained glass, in mind as well.
'People have been remarkably generous,” Stephen Hanson said about the contributions that come in year after year to the organization.
'One of the joys of St. Michael's and Holbrook is that if you say you need X, someone come to take care of it,” added Loretta Hanson. 'Someone is always watching it. A lot of people have taken ownership.”
There are many notable features of the church, including the 2,000 pound bell that sits out front, the stunning stained glass windows, a beautifully restored statue of St. Michael keeping a very hideous rendition of the devil in check, and the surrounding cemetery, where some 2,000 people are buried.
'There's someone from every county in Ireland buried here,” Stephen Hanson said.
Old St. Michael's, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1966, is home to several community events throughout the year. It hosts a St. Patrick's Day dance as well as events on Memorial and Labor Day weekends.
In November it hosts a Feather Party, where guests play bingo to win one of 60 turkeys. It's a tradition that's been going on for 50 years, Loretta Hanson said. And every other year, the church plays host to a concert by Anthony Kearns, one of the famed Irish Tenors.
The Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols event is a particularly special tradition.
'Most of the church is full, no matter the weather,” Loretta Hanson said. 'It's pretty darn lovely here.”
'When the sun comes in these windows it's pretty remarkable,” she added. 'It's hard to come here and not fall in the love with the place.”
While there is an occasional wedding or funeral held at Old St. Michael's, these days those who want to see the church need to call (319) 668-1569 and make an appointment.
'If someone wants to use the church or see it, we do our best to accommodate,” Stephen Hanson said.