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Davenport Area Catholics Celebrate The Last Mass And Concert In Historic St. Mary Church

Lars Anderson
Stained glass windows inside St. Mary's Catholic Church in Davenport, Iowa

For over a century and a half St. Mary Catholic Church has been a landmark on the corner of Fillmore and West 6th Streets in Davenport. Its 135-foot-spire has been known as the symbol of a place to grow one's faith, to help those in need, and an institution dedicated to making the community stronger. In its 153-year history, the church membership has changed, and now supports a large Hispanic congregation. Today, the church celebrates four Spanish, Latin and bilingual Sunday masses every week. For generations of families that have grown up at St. Mary Church, this is a bittersweet ending. The final celebration mass is Sunday, October 11.

Davenport Diocese Decided to Decommission St. Mary Church

After many meetings, the Diocese of Davenport decided in the fall of 2019 to decommission the St. Mary Church and merge the congregation with St. Anthony Parish. St. Anthony’s Reverend Pastor Rudolph T. Juárez is energized about the merger: "For over 153 years St. Mary Church has been a spiritual icon in the west side of Davenport. She has served as a physical reminder of God's presence in good times and in bad times for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The actual physical plant will continue to be used in the future for the same purpose for which it was founded - as a vehicle for loving and serving God, and loving and serving our neighbor. The Diocese of Davenport and the parishioners of St. Mary and St. Anthony’s is proud to be part of this pivotal moment in the history of our city and we look forward to being a partner in the noble work of promoting and serving the good of society."

Notable Art Collection

St. Mary Catholic Church is Davenport’s fourth oldest Catholic house of worship. The entire St. Mary Roman Catholic Church Complex is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the church, the rectory, the convent and the former parochial school building. It’s been reported that some of the early parishioners who helped lay the original bricks had likely served in the Civil War. St. Mary has also been known for its fourteen Way of the Cross oil canvases and another large oil artwork gracing the alter. The alter painting, inspired by Guido Reni’s Italian Renaissance Assumption of Mary, was acquired in Europe in 1893.

St. Mary Church’s legacy committee member, Lars Anderson, who grew up as a parishioner at St. Mary, shares that the church’s legacy team has been busy deciding where the treasured artifacts should reside after the closure: “We are getting close to having a home for the collection of the fourteen Stations of the Cross started in 1870 and completed in 1871 by Mr. C. F. Fick of Davenport. The fourteen Stations of the Cross and the Reni-inspired Assumption of Mary painting will probably hang in the Parish Center of St. Anthony in downtown Davenport. This is where we really want them to hang as it’s our new parish home now.”

Prized Moline Pipe Organ

Lars Anderson
Pipe organ within St. Mary's Catholic Church

St. Mary Church is also known for its two-manual Moline Pipe Organ. Anderson continues by filling in details on the church’s impressive and historic instrument: “The Organ is a Willis ‘cousin.’ It was made by the Moline Pipe Organ Company. Mr. Lancashire and Mr. Turner came to America from London to oversee installation and voicing of a ‘Father’ Willis Pipe Organ in Wisconsin. Mr. Lancashire was talked into staying in America. He attracted three more Willis workers to America and eventually Mr. Lancashire and Mr. Turner, both from the Willis Company, opened Moline Pipe Organ Co. So this is where the Willis connection comes from. Our pipe organ has a warm, round romantic sound with lovely string stops and sweet flutes. It’s very English. She also has three ranks at 16 feet which gives her strength with a full ‘bottom.’ Our pipe organ ‘The Voice of St. Mary’ was produced and installed by The Moline Pipe Organ Company in 1883. It is considered the oldest playing pipe organ in our River Valley. She is still in good shape. She stands 26 feet tall and her approximately 1,000 pipes sound out from the organ and choir loft another story overhead.” Anderson, who returned to Iowa from Los Angeles to help locate a spot for the organ, says: “Since I’ve been back working with our committee, we have interest in placing her (the organ) here in Davenport. We thought that would be the hardest job. We feel we can raise the money. Finding a home for a 26-foot tall organ is tough but we already have hope!”

Rare Recital Opportunity Featuring Guest Concert Organist

There are only a few chances left to hear the St. Mary organ and visit the church. St. Mary will host a recital on Saturday, October 10 at 1 p.m. This will be an unusual three-part program. Anderson explains, “This is a live concert following all COVID-19 safety guidelines including social distance seating and mask-wearing indoors. We are also providing outdoor socially distanced seating with professional sound supporting the outdoor experience. Outdoor seating will be in a tree-shaded lawn between the church and the rectory, to capture the outdoor sound and create a little outdoor resonance. The concert will be played in multiple sets with concert goers emptying the church at two intermissions. The pews and chairs will be wiped down and exterior listeners will be invited in for the full experience of the indoor sound. We hope to let “The Voice of St. Mary” touch all who come. An antique instrument like this should be heard in person so we are not a virtual experience. The concert is free, but does kick off a fund drive to attempt to save our historic pipe organ. We have early estimates on costs to disassemble the organ, repair and reinstall the organ, if we can find her a new home!” Once a buyer is found, the committee hopes to raise $50,000 to refurbish and relocate St. Mary’s historic organ.

Guest concert organist, Christopher Nelson, the Director of Music Ministries and Organist at Davenport’s St. Paul Lutheran Church and part-time instructor of music and organ at Augustana College, will perform on Saturday’s St. Mary Church recital. Nelson obtained his Bachelor’s degree from Bethany College in Kansas and his Master of Sacred Music from St. Olaf College. Nelson will incorporate four organ classics on his Saturday playlist. One will be a “Prelude” that Bach originally composed for his Violin Partita, BWV 1006. Bach uses the same theme again in his organ and orchestra “Sinfonia” movement from his Cantata, BWV 29. Nelson will perform Marcel Dupré’s solo organ setting of Bach’s “Sinfonia.” Nelson will also include the “Fantasia in G (Pièce d’Orgue), BWV 678” from Bach’s Clavier-Übung III. The tender and graceful work, often known as the ‘ten commandments chorale’ presents the theme in five phrases, which Bach then doubles in canon, representing the ten commandments. Additionally, Nelson will play one of Eugène Gigout’s best-known works, his “Grand chœur dialogué.”

He will lastly present the Four Sketches for Pedal Piano, Op. 58, by Robert Schumann. Infrequently staged on pedal piano, but more often on organ, the work weaves a short theme throughout the four movements. The first is a somewhat showy and lurching march. The second is more revelatory and majestic. The lively third movement showcases the motif in dramatic form. And the merry, good-humored final movement closes with a spirited finish. Nelson says, “It’s an honor to play the last recital on this historic organ at St. Mary Church. This instrument has some lovely sounds that I hope to show off. It has been a joy spending time getting to know the instrument.“ Following Nelson’s recital, as an extra bonus, St. Mary Church is hosting an ‘open-bench’ session. In these ten-minute individual shifts, musicians who wish to give the vintage organ a try can do so by playing any selections that they wish.

St. Mary Parish: Open House and Farewell Celebration Mass

Lars Anderson
Altar inside St. Mary's Catholic Church

On Sunday, October 11 the St. Mary Parish will host an Open House and Farewell Celebration Mass. The Bishop of the Diocese of Davenport, Thomas Zinkula, and St. Anthony’s Reverend Pastor Rudolph T. Juárez, will conduct the Farewell Celebration Mass from the front steps of St. Mary Church. Kim Noftsker, St. Anthony Church director of music, will perform as service organist. The St. Mary Church sanctuary and cemetery grounds will be open for visitors on Sunday starting at 3 p.m. and the Farewell Celebration Mass will start at 4 p.m. COVID-19 social distancing and mask-wearing will be required. Following the Farewell Celebration Mass, there will be a one-and-a-half-mile procession to St. Mary Church’s new parish home located at the St. Anthony Church in downtown Davenport. As the era of Davenport’s St. Mary Church comes to a close, we can only thank those early St. Mary parishioners for their vision, wherewithal, and enthusiasm to build and maintain such a strong and vibrant church and community.

To find out more details and participate in this historic memorial tribute to St. Mary Church’s Organ Concert and Farewell Celebration Mass, please use this link and scroll down.

If you would like to make a financial contribution to assist in the refurbishing and relocation of the St. Mary Church organ, please e-mail St. Mary Church’s legacy committee member, Lars Anderson, at