116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Take a tour through Iowa’s distinctive religious buildings
Several years ago, a trout fishing booklet guided us to Wexford Creek in far northeast Iowa. We were seeking Iowa’s tasty fish but discovered something delightful and totally unexpected.
After a half-hour of fruitless casting, we gave up on the fish. Abandoning rods, we walked to a distinctive church perched above the stream, sat in a pew and enjoyed the view of a peaceful, rural valley.
Although we’re not Catholic, we love Wexford Immaculate Conception Church for its beauty, history and location. Before our discovery we had casually noticed Iowa’s religious structures. Wexford ignited our curiosity about the architecture and history of religious buildings of diverse faiths. It started a quest. When traveling, we now detour to see religious buildings. Often, tall steeples are visual beacons drawing us to them.
After visiting many older structures, we noted that early Iowa settlers placed a high priority on building both county courthouses and churches. People worked long hours eking out a living, often by farming. Money and time were scarce, yet people cooperated to craft impressive structures that have now served generations of Iowans. Their stories are told on their websites and sources we reached out to.
Like other Iowa religious buildings, Wexford’s Immaculate Conception signifies more than religion. It’s also history and architectural beauty. Irish Catholics found their way to northeast Iowa after crossing the ocean. They created farms and crafted a Church named for County Wexford in Ireland. Many area mailboxes bear names of Irish origin. That’s typical. Immigrants from around the world brought their religion, customs and building styles to Iowa, adapting and updating each.
Germans thickly settled along the Mississippi River and built grand Catholic Churches in both river cities and small towns. Scandinavian immigrants settled throughout Iowa. The same can be said for Czechs, English, Danes, Muslims, Jews and other ethnic groups.
We appreciate the magnificent Gothic architecture of the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier in Dyersville, the clean “pointed architecture” lines of the New Melleray Abbey in Dubuque, the simplicity of the Little Brown Church in Nashua, the classic lines of the Colonial Revival style of Cedar Rapids’ Bethel AME Church, and the functionality of the Friends Meeting House in Whittier. The illuminated steeple of St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church in Cedar Rapids’ New Bo District is breathtaking at night.
Not all notable religious buildings are Christian. Iowa has a rich history of religious inclusivity. Muslim immigrants crafted the fascinating Mother Mosque and the nearby Islamic Center in Cedar Rapids. The Mother Mosque of America, the oldest standing mosque in America, is now an Islamic Cultural and Historic Center. Its distinctive green dome represents the arch of heaven, and brilliant geometric shapes form the stained-glass windows topped with mihrabs. The building’s features reveal the importance Muslims place on symbolism that connects to the Divine.
The faith that appears to have the most diversity of architecture is Judaism. The Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Des Moines website states, “Each synagogue is literally a “sign of the times” and window into the Jewish past and present.”
Most areas of Iowa were settled by people who came from distant lands. Small-town Methodist, Episcopal, Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist and nondenominational churches represent this diversity.
Not all Iowa churches are grand eye-catchers. Rural areas are sprinkled with modest, wood-framed structures. Often, they are simply community churches like the Lafayette Christian Church north of Cedar Rapids.
On a December day trip to Dubuque County, we spotted an impressive church high above U.S. Highway 52 just south of St. Donatus. While inspecting St. John's Lutheran Church we spied another church across the valley with an intriguing small steepled building perched above it. Minutes later we’d driven over to St. Donatus Catholic Church. Behind was a trailhead, welcoming walkers to the stations of the cross trail to the Pieta Chapel with a view of the valley and St. John’s Church in the distance.
Earlier that day we toured the New Melleray Trappist Monastery near Dubuque. Unlike many ornate Catholic churches, we were struck by the simple beauty of its chapel. Cistercian monks achieved their intent to beautify through simplicity using stone and wood.
No tour of Iowa’s religious buildings is complete without a stop at what’s likely the state’s most famous church. Famed for the song, “The Little Brown Church in the Vale,” this wooden structure houses an active congregation. Thousands of couples have been married in this well known, humble building.
Many new religious structures have a far different look than the elaborate, steepled and domed buildings built years ago. For example, Coralville’s Unitarian Universalist Church features rows of solar collectors, demonstrating the faith’s dedication to sustainable living. Surrounding Cedar Rapids metro are relatively new, large houses of worship. Unlike older churches that were normally situated near downtown, they often have gymnasiums, playgrounds, and ponds. Some give a nod to the steeples of a bygone era with a simple cross.
Materials for the many structures include quarried stone, brick, wood and metal. Towers and tapering spires and domes indicative of the dome of heaven call the faithful. Arches, iconography, statues and stained-glass windows tell stories honoring prophets and saints. Red doors on Episcopal churches apparently have a variety of meanings. Regardless of beliefs, entering religious structures from the vestibules to worship areas evokes moving toward the Divine.
Since visiting Wexford’s Immaculate Conception Church years ago and beginning our journey discovering varied religious buildings, we’ve also enjoyed touring far flung ones. Our list includes St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the Greek Revival temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo, Illinois, and the neo-gothic style of the Salt Lake City, Utah temple.
A few years ago while driving Interstate 70 in western Kansas’ wide-open country, a pinprick of spires on the horizon caught our eyes. It was the beautiful Basilica of St. Fidelis, also called the Cathedral of the Plains, in Victoria. Exiting the freeway, we studied the Romanesque structure and marveled at the imported artwork and Italian marble altar. Equally interesting is South Dakota’s distinctive Stavkirke, a reproduction of a famous wooden church in Norway.
Fascinating religious structures are virtually everywhere in Iowa and around the world. We’re thankful that our discovery of Wexford Church ignited our fascination with these often-remarkable buildings. It’s unknown how many religious structures are in Iowa, but we will keep exploring when we travel to learn more of Iowa’s history and culture.
Rich and Marion Patterson have backgrounds in environmental science and forestry. They co-own Winding Pathways, a consulting business that encourages people to “Create Wondrous Yards.”