"SHSI Certificate of Recognition"
"Best on the Web"

Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


From Encyclopedia Dubuque
Jump to navigationJump to search
Dubuque's City Mission during the Great Depression saved hundreds of people from want. Library of Congress

DUBUQUE RESCUE MISSION. The first Dubuque Rescue Mission was established by G. W. Thomas on August 15, 1895 at a location on 6th Street. By the end of its first year, the facility was forced to turn away an estimated one hundred people every night for lack of space. To remedy the situation, Thomas proposed renting the Steiner Building on the east side of Main Street between 5th and 6th. (1)

The finished basement was to be used for men who rented beds for ten cents per night. General meetings were held on the first floor. The second floor was the location of a reading room and lunch counter for men. The third floor housed the girls' dormitory, meeting room and lunch counter. Prominent ladies of the community addressed meetings of the girls. (2)

The mission accepted food and clothing for distribution to the poor. An employment bureau was planned after the new site was opened. (3)

On November 12, 1896 a meeting was held at the Stout Auditorium of the YOUNG MEN'S CHRISTIAN ASSOCIATION (Y.M.C.A.). The focus of the meeting was on the need in the community for the mission and fundraising. Meals, for example, cost between ten and fifteen cents. Rent was expected to be $1,000 annually. Pledge cards were distributed to those in attendance asked for $1.00 per month. Food cards, valued at ten cents, could also be purchased. These cards instead of cash could be given to people requesting money for food at the mission. (4)

On November 18, 1896 a donation party was held. Tickets purchased in advance were ten cents and free carriages were available at the end of the streetcar line. Donations, if not brought that day, could be delivered to Dr. Nancy HILL or G. F. Thormann. Among the items most desired were cotton cloth and flannel for children's wear and bedding. (5)

In January 1897 the Mission relocated across the street to 281 6th. (6)

It was during the GREAT DEPRESSION in the early 1930s that the idea for the Dubuque Rescue Mission was restored. Dubuque businessman Edward James BEACH along with a group of men, presumably, members of the Protestant Ministerial Association, explored the possibility of opening a facility for transient men. This group approached Reverend Williams Masters to help develop this dream into a reality. Reverend Masters was the pastor of the FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH of Dubuque at that time. (7)

The organization was incorporated in 1931, but did not officially open its doors until February 14, 1932. Its first location was in a small white frame building located at 551 Iowa Street. The primary goal of the Mission was to care for the physical and spiritual needs of homeless men who were coming through Dubuque. Likewise it also provided food and used clothing, to people in the community who had a need. (8) In the first six days the mission was open, it served 310 meals and housed sixty men. (9)

Spiritual care included singing. Library of Congress

At this time, the Dubuque Rescue Mission did not receive much financial support from individual donors or churches. It did receive support from the COMMUNITY CHEST and in-house cottage industries such as the restoration and resale of used furniture in a small thrift store. Daily life at the Mission consisted of the men working various jobs both at the Mission and in the community. There were meals served to both the transient men and to the hungry individuals in town. Each day concluded with on-site worship services led by various Protestant clergy leaders in the area. These services were open to the public and mandatory for the residents living at the Mission. (10)

Photo courtesy: Library of Congress
Photo courtesy: Bob Johnsen

By 1938, the needs in the area forced the Mission to move to a larger facility on the corner of 5th and Iowa STREETS. This building was able to house more transient men and provide storage for food and goods given to the public. One drawback was the lack of a furnace. To keep the building and men warm at night, the Mission kept their cooking stoves constantly running. (11) The operation of the mission at this time was directed by a vote of the pastors, directors and representatives of the churches cooperating in the Mission. (12)

Reverend Masters was an excellent cook. Library of Congress
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding

Reverend Masters had a great concern for the physical and spiritual well being of transient men. Each man who came to the Mission had to shower and go through a fumigation of clothing and possessions. This fumigation was aimed at eliminating potential problems with bed bugs and lice. Transient guests were then treated to a hearty meal personally prepared by Reverend Masters. It has been said that Reverend Masters was an excellent cook. He spent countless hours preparing nourishing soups to feed the men and the hungry in the community. After a long day in the kitchen, Reverend Masters would preach the good news of hope through faith in Christ. Reverend Masters continued in this outreach until he suffered a heart attack in 1941 and died September 2, 1942. (13) In 1943 the mission served 92,721 meals. (14)

During the 1940s little changed in the daily life and outreach of the Mission which was under the leadership of Reverend Joseph Wells. Financially, the Mission was primarily supported through the Community Chest and from money generated from the sale of used furniture and room rents. In 1946, the Mission purchased and moved to its current location on the corner of 4th and Main Streets. At that time the building housed the old Armstrong Bowling Alley. The Mission then began a massive remodeling effort that would last close to three years. (15)

It was during this time that Reverend Wells and members of the Board of Directors appealed to churches and to the community for financial help. They initiated a program called the "Dollar a Week" campaign through the newspaper, radio, and movie trailers to get the word out to the public with the result that $4,000 was collected. In addition, the Mission began to get into the business of the industrial sales of recycling papers and metals. Recycling became the major source of income and support for Mission outreaches for the next two decades. (16)

The 1950s and the 1960s featured an expansion of industrial sales and activities. A fleet of trucks and a warehouse (the O’Meara building at 144 Locust Street) were purchased. Transient men who came to the Mission were hired as employees to help with the handling and moving of goods. Under the leadership of Reverend Charles Pierce and then Mr. Leonard Roussell the Mission became almost totally self-supporting through a combination of industrial sales, room rents, and Thrift Store sales. (17)

Recycling prices fluctuated up and down. The Mission struggled with trying to find financing to fix and maintain a fire hazard warehouse and its aging downtown building. Fund-raising efforts were only marginally successful. At times, the Mission fell behind in its abilities to pay both creditors and taxes. Loans from local financial institutions helped the Mission get through some rough times, yet the debt remained. Unfortunately, there was criticism that financial woes were causing the spiritual care of individuals and humanitarian outreach to suffer neglect. The debt woes come to a head in 1976 when the Mission sold the warehouse, the recycling equipment, and most of its fleet of trucks.

In March, the Telegraph-Herald reported in a story that the Dubuque City Mission officials had called it quits. The Mission owed $16,000 on its Main Street building and $8,000 to other creditors. Officials announced they had assets to pay the creditors, but that cash flow was a problem. The main building was offered for sale to several local agencies. (18)

However, the Mission did not close. (19)

During the remainder of the 1970s, the emphasis switched toward gaining support from area congregations. The Board of Directors, in 1978, moved to allow the Mission to join what is known today as the DUBUQUE AREA CONGREGATIONS UNITED (DACU). This caused a rift between some members of the board and the executive director that triggered a series of mass resignations. (20)

After joining DACU, the direction of the Mission began to move toward humanitarian outreach. Under the leadership of Jack Harley and later Reverend Robert Burns and Reverend Robert Williams, there was a move toward more active participation by the community in the life of the Dubuque Rescue Mission. For the first time, women and later Roman Catholics were allowed to serve on the Mission’s Board of Directors. In addition, there was recruitment of volunteers to help serve the daily public meal. Churches and civic organizations were recruited to help serve a dinner on Sundays. Likewise, the Mission opened an emergency shelter for women and families as well as started the community food bank. This agency became the ST. STEPHEN'S FOOD BANK. (21)

Although the financial situation of the organization improved, the building that housed the Mission was in need of urgent repair. It was during this period that Reverend Donald Booher helped spearhead an ambitious drive to totally overhaul the entire building. Through the generosity of the citizens of the city, this project was a success. Of particular note was the effort of Mr. Eldon HERRIG who help raise funds for the renovation of the guest dormitory and the public dining facility. Herrig's challenge to the community to raise $50,000 was met within a week. He then used a $10,000 donation from the WAHLERT FOUNDATION to issue another challenge. (22)

However, fund raising was not the only emphasis during Reverend Booher’s time. Along with the DUBUQUE VISITING NURSE ASSOCIATION, a medical clinic for the uninsured began in 1992. Started as a monthly outreach, the clinic provided weekly out-patient services until 2006 when the new CRESCENT COMMUNITY HEALTH CENTER opened and residents and guests were referred there. Reverend Booher cared deeply about the needs of the poor in the community. He continually searched for additional outreaches to serve those in need. Reverend Booher died, November 1999 from a long struggle with cancer. (23)

It was during this time, that a theology student from the University of Dubuque Theological Center, Murray Phillips, took over as Executive Director. The following year, Murray was ordained into the ministry and continued his role as Executive Director of the Dubuque Rescue Mission. Murray moved the mission forward in the next four years until he was commissioned by the United States Army to provide spiritual guidance to soldiers during the Iraq conflict. In his absence, Fr. Andrew Eagan, a priest of the Anglican Church, took over as interim director of the mission in 2004. Fr. Andrew continued service until the spring of 2007 when he moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. On October 1, 2007 the Reverend Rick Mihm became the executive director. (24)

As the Mission began its 78th year of service to the community, there was no let up of need. The outreaches included housing transient men (8,160 bed nights were provided in 2008). It also included the serving of 43,476 meals to the public in 2008. The Mission provided material and monetary assistance to 600 area residents who needed everything from children’s clothing to gasoline. In addition, opportunities were provided for service from volunteers ranging from elementary school students to senior citizens. Volunteers freely gave of their time and made a difference in the lives of others. Volunteers served in the Thrift Store, prepared and served meals during the day, provided opportunities for spiritual worship and pastoral care, and served on the Board of Directors. (25)

Feeding those who regularly ate at the Mission was made a bit easier through the establishment of gardens. Two of the gardens featured quick-growing plants like peas, cabbage and herbs. A third provided peppers, pumpkins, and tomatoes. Plans in 2013 included a fifty-foot green house. In addition to the food provided, the gardens offered those staying at the mission an opportunity to "reconnect to nature and heal" according to the Mission's director. (26)

In 2016 the Rescue Mission could house forty-five men per night during warm-weather. During cold weather some had to be turned away despite the Mission's policy of always trying to find someway of finding room. The Mission also provided more than two hundred meals per day. Estimates showed that twenty-five percent of the homeless came from outside the city indicating that there were many rural residents without a home of their own. Rural communities were not equipped this population and the responsibility was passed on to larger cities like Dubuque. (27)

Cindy Middleton's donation of "plarn" mats lead to unexpected results. Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald

In 2019 a post on Facebook by Mission officials gathered more than 300,000 viewers and was shared by more than 2,000 people. The posting told of Guttenberg resident Cindy Middleton's project of crocheting sleeping mats for the homeless out of plastic bags. Middleton got the idea by watching a woman in Arizona work with "plarn," plastic yarn. Each mat took between 300 to 350 plastic bags and a week or two to create. She donated the mats to the Rescue Mission for those who chose not to stay in the shelter. Rescue Mission pleas on Facebook for more bags led to requests to create a Skype a tutorial by Middleton so that others could learn the technique and rescue their own plastic bags to help the homeless. (28)

The PANDEMIC in 2020 caused special considerations to be made at the Mission. Anyone wishing to stay were tested for the virus immediately. They were then isolated in the basement until the test results were returned. They could take quick breaks outside, but if the isolation rules were broken they had to restart the entire process again. The free meal program continued daily for an average of 35 people at breakfast and 80 to 120 for both lunch and dinner. Officials regulated the number of people who came in to stand in line. The only people who could remain to eat inside were the elderly or the disabled. Consideration was being given for adding more tables and assigning people to shifts so that they could come inside during the winter to eat and socialize. (29)

In January, 2022 the city council voted unanimously to allocate an additional $54,999 in Community Block Grant Funds to the Mission which was rehabilitating its men's dormitories and bathrooms. The city had provided $80,000 in block grant funds to the project in July, 2001. Increases in material costs and additional requirements for the project due to federal assistance led to the increase in funding. (30)

In 2022 the Mission housed men and had a thrift store at its 398 Main St. Location and a second thrift store at 998 Central. Breakfast and lunch was served daily at the Main Street facility as well as dinner on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday. (31)_

1999-2004 Murray E. Phillips

2004-2007 Fr. Andrew Eagan

2007- current Rev. Rick Mihm

This 1930s picture shows some of the earliest clients of the Mission. Library of Congress
Men line up for a meal at the Mission during the Great Depression. Only the first twenty-five will be served. Library of Congress
A prayer is led before those fortunate enough to be feed begin their meal. Library of Congress
Children during the Depression line up for soup to be taken home from the Mission's kitchen. Library of Congress



1. "Doing Good Work," Dubuque Daily Herald, October 27, 1896, p. 4

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. "For Mission Work," Dubuque Daily Herald, November 13, 1896, p. 1

5. "A Chance to Give," Dubuque Herald, November 15, 1896, p. 8

6. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, January 12, 1897, p. 5

7. Information provided by Rev. Rick Mihm

8. Ibid.

9. Reese, Kayli, "Mission Marks 90 Years of Aiding Those In Need," Telegraph Herald, February 9, 2022, p. 3A

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. "City Mission," Telegraph-Herald, January 24, 1937, p. 11

13. Rev. Rick Mihm

14. Reese

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Fyten, David, "Dubuque City Mission Calls It Quits," Telegraph Herald, March 22, 1976, p. 1

19. Rev. Rick Mihm

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.

22. Nevans-Pederson, Mary. "Herrig on a Mission: A Challenge Met; 1 to Go," Telegraph Herald, May 15, 1998, p. 3A. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=aEyKTaVlRPYC&dat=19980515&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

23. Mihm

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. Hinga, Allie, "Reaping Rewards," Telegraph Herald, July 14, 2013, p. 37

27. Kruse, John, "The Invisible Homeless," Telegraph Herald, June 26, 2016, p. 1A

28. Barton, Thomas A., "Guttenberg Woman's Plarn Mats for Homeless Make Broad Impact," Telegraph Herald, November 4, 2019, p. 5

29. Reese, Kayli, "Nowhere Else to Go," Telegraph Herald, October 4, 2020, p. 1A

30. Kruse, John, "Dubuque City Council," Telegraph Herald, January 4, 2020, p. 2A

31. Reese