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Encyclopedia Dubuque


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Saint Mary's Church

ST. MARY'S CATHOLIC CHURCH. St. Mary's Catholic Church served for decades as the physical, social and cultural center of a largely German-Catholic working class neighborhood. The church located at 1584 White, was also the start of four parishes in Dubuque. Sacred Heart was established in 1879. Holy Ghost was developed in 1896, followed by Holy Trinity in 1910, and Nativity in 1922.

In 1849 crowded conditions at St. Raphael's Church and the inability to adequately minister to the needs of German-speaking families in Dubuque led Bishop Mathias LORAS to grant permission for forty German families from such regions as Westphalia, Bavaria, Austria, Switzerland and Luxembourg to form a new congregation. (1) The parish was first called Holy Trinity. (2)

Members of Holy Trinity Church organized the GERMAN ROMAN CATHOLIC BUILDING ASSOCIATION OF DUBUQUE in 1863 to plan and construct a new church for approximately three hundred families. The site of the was five lots purchased from the Langworthy Estate. (3) John MULLANY, the architect of ST. RAPHAEL'S CATHEDRAL, was chosen to draw the plans while the construction was directed by Father Aloysius Meis. Stone for the church, the first German Catholic Church to be built in Dubuque and the second Catholic church, came from local quarries. When the foundation of the church was finished on September 5, 1864, only $3.03 was left in the treasury. Additional donations and fund-raising brought in the remaining $80,000. E. Brielmaier, an architect, sculptor, and builder, was responsible for much of the interior work of the church.

Mullany designed St. Mary's in the GOTHIC REVIVAL ARCHITECTURE with the steeple, at 250-feet in height, the tallest steeple in the area. Likely patterned from Augustus Pugin's Cathedral in Southwark, London. In 2022 the church was one of the oldest remaining high-Style Gothic Revival church buildings in Iowa. (4)

In July 1866 a group from the building committee began a city-wide solicitation for funds to complete the spire. (5) The effort was successful and a meeting was held at the A. HEEB BREWING COMPANY to open bids for the contract. Three bids were received with the lowest price, $4,750, going to John Mullany. (6)

The dedication of the GOTHIC REVIVAL ARCHITECTURE church was delivered by Reverend John HENNESSY on February 10, 1867. In the early 1870s, Hook and Hastings Company of Boston, an important 19th century organ builder, installed a three manual tracker-action organ in the choir loft. In 1965 the organ was renovated with new wind chests and additional pipes. (7)

Pew rental was a familiar form of raising money in churches. In January, 1873 the semi-annual receipts from this source totaled $2,213.00. (8)

1916 baseball team

Saint Mary's Church]]From 1876 to 1883, three bells were installed in the bell tower. These were dedicated to St. John, the Apostle, the Blessed Virgin, and the Crucifixion. The largest bell weighs 5,000 pounds. In 1946 parishioner William H. KLAUER donated automatic bell-ringing equipment.

Beginning in 1900, ST. MARY'S CASINO at 16th and White STREETS became the center of parish social life. St. Mary's was the only parish in Dubuque at that time to offer both a basketball and football team. In 1959 the building became the new SAINT MARY'S SCHOOL. In 2001 the building was remodeled to house an early childhood center.

Photo courtesy: Theresa Crabill
Photo courtesy: Theresa Crabill

In 1912 several improvements were made to the interior of the church. The sanctuary was enlarged, two chapels were built in the rear of the church, four side entrances were built and the interior was greatly enhanced when artistic "way of the cross" paintings, stained glass windows and statuary, all from Munich, Germany, were installed. The windows were purchased from the Zetteler Company. F.X. Zetteler, the designer of the windows, was recognized as a master artist. These twelve windows depicted the life of the Blessed Virgin from her presentation in the temple to the scene of her death. The windows were rushed out of Germany prior to the start of WORLD WAR I. (9) A letter in the files of the parish from the glass studios expressed their apprehension that war might overtake them before the completed windows could be sent to the United States.

Photo courtesy: Theresa Crabill

An elaborate and artistic fresco plan was also inaugurated at this time. The Brielmaiers drew the plans in detail. When the elder Brielmaier died, the work was sublet to the Joseph Walter Company, church decorators of Dubuque. The large mural of the Assumption was painted by Clotlida Brielmaier.

Photo courtesy: Theresa Crabill

A rose window behind the main altar was covered and Clotilda painted a large mural of the Assumption to occupy the space. She felt that since the church was under the patronage of the Assumption of Mary this should be the theme of the mural and that it should be large enough that eyes are drawn to it as one enters the church. The mural, 35 feet high, was begun on canvas in three sections in Miss Brielmaier's studio. After it was mounted in the church behind the main altar, she finished the work there. In 1943 the mural started fading and curling. Carl Stringham, a church artist from St. Louis, was able to restore it.

Photo courtesy: Theresa Crabill

In 1928 the "Altar of St. Mary" was placed in the church. Made of Italian Carrara marble, the altar contained relics of St. Anthony, St. Francis, St. Peter Canisius, and St. Clement Hofbauer. Above the altar was the mosaic picture of "Mary of the Angels" which was imported from Munich.

St. Mary's parish was asked to contribute 9 percent or $315,000 toward the building program of WAHLERT CATHOLIC HIGH SCHOOL. Between the spring and September of 1965, nearly half of the $93,000 pledge for the Dubuque Franciscan Sister's Development Campaign, recognizing eighty-six years of teaching at St. Mary's, had been received in cash.

During the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s and the following economic recession, many of the old factories in Dubuque closed or relocated. This resulted in many Washington Neighborhood residents relocating and the congregation shrinking.

On January 9, 1976, near disaster struck St. Mary Church when a fire started in the next to the Nativity scene in front of the St. Joseph altar. Smoke escaped above the pipes of the organ in the choir loft and out the steeple, alerting people of the danger. The fire was so hot that it melted light fixtures. The FIRE DEPARTMENT responded promptly, and the church was miraculously saved.

In 1992, an accessible entrance located in the northeast corner of the church was built with a fully-operating elevator. Further ADA-compliant accessibility and sustainability practices were added with a grant from the DUBUQUE RACING ASSOCIATION. These included restroom renovations, energy-efficient insulation and electrical outlets, an updated air=conditioning system, and updated handrails. (10)

In 1999 St. Mary Parish clustered with its neighboring parish, St. Patrick. Both parishes retained their individual identifies, but shared a pastoral administrator and priests. In the 1990s, St. Mary's built a new handicapped entrance located at the northeast corner of the church. The shrinking population in the area, however, forced St. Mary's school to close in 2002. (11)

In 2009 the former sisters' convent located on Jackson Street housed MARIA HOUSE. The school building located at the corner of 15th and Jackson housed LANTERN CENTER. Also located in the building was the Immigration Office for the ARCHDIOCESE OF DUBUQUE.

On July 15, 2009, officials with St. Mary's announced their recommendation to close the church that had served the community for 142 years. Reasons cited included declining church membership and increasing debt.

On May 25, 2010 the final Mass was led in the church by Archbishop Jerome G. HANUS.

In September, 2010 Dubuque archdiocese officials considered several options while still maintaining the goal of selling the church and its adjacent rectory to pay off the debt of St. Mary's parish. On September 8, 2010 representatives from the ARCHDIOCESE OF DUBUQUE and other dioceses in Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin were invited to tour the church and choose statues, chalices, banners, crucifixes and other items that could be used in their own churches. (12)

In 2014 business and community leaders formed a group called The Friends of St. Mary's made plans for an area to be known as the St. Mary Church Campus. (13) Bordered by White, Jackson, 15th and 16th, the plans involved three of the campus buildings in a project called Steeple Square. (14) The original St. Mary School would be renovated into apartments and communal space. The church rectory would be redesigned into office space. The church basement would house multipurpose space. The main floor of the church would house customized areas for individual tenants and larger public sites for performing arts and a coffee shop/cafe.

In early July 2015, the Dubuque Zoning Advisory Commission unanimously approved a request to rezone the St. Mary's Church campus from residential to office commercial. (15) Title to the property was transferred to Friends of St. Mary's, a coalition of business and community leaders. (16)

Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald

On March 10, 2016 organizers of the STEEPLE SQUARE renovation project announced plans for the former church property. Jack McCullough, president of the non-profit group, said Steeple Square would become a centerpiece of the neighborhood. The former school would become twelve apartments for clients graduated from the transitional housing program of OPENING DOORS. The former rectory would eventually house offices for nonprofit organizations while the main church floor and sanctuary would be transformed to an event and community center. Restoration of the church basement would begin in the spring of 2017. (17)

In 2022 the former church became the temporary of FIRST CONGREGATIONAL UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST which rented the facility for Sunday services during the reconstruction of its own north wall.

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The 1987 Dubuque City Directory listed 1584 White.



1. "From St. Mary's to Steeple Square: A Brief History," p. 1

2. Barton, Thomas J. "Former St. Mary's Still 'Home,' Telegraph Herald, November 10, 2019, p. 11A

3. "From St. Mary's....", p. 1

4. Ibid.

5. "Spire Collection," Dubuque Herald, July 29, 1866, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18660729&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

6. "Let Out the Contract," Dubuque Herald, August 12, 1866, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18660812&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

7. "Steeple Square Tour Guide" p. 1

8. "Renting of Pews," Dubuque Herald, January 6, 1873, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18730107&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

9. "Steeple Square Tour Guide" p. 1

10. Ibid., p. 2

11. Barton, 12A

12. "January," Chronology 2014, Telegraph Herald, January 1, 2015, p. 4

13. Frenzel, Anthony. "Inspired by St. Mary's," Telegraph Herald, May 11, 2015, p. 1C

14. Ibid., p. 4C

15. "Rezoning Request for St. Mary's Church Campus Approved," Telegraph Herald, July 2, 2015, p. 3A

16. Hogstrom, Erik. "Steeple Square Renovations Set to Take Root," Telegraph Herald, March 10, 2016, p. 1

17. Ibid., p. 2A