CLINTON, Iowa - Time changes everything, even where people go to church.
That's what happened in this Mississippi River town, where five Catholic churches - with their ornately carved altars, colorful stained-glass windows and lots of history - once served five separate parishes.
Well, those parishes eventually merged into one called Jesus Christ Prince of Peace Parish, the leaders of which dreamed about someday bringing everyone together in one new church building.
That day came nearly two years ago, in March 2009, when a new, large Catholic church opened near Mill Creek Parkway.
But much controversy ensued about what to do with the old churches. Some wanted to see them torn down to make way for unification of the parish.
Others desperately wanted to see the historic structures saved, even going so far as filing for a court injunction to stop demolition, but they weren't successful.
Bystanders watched as 100-year-old St. Patrick's Church was knocked down in 2005, and people gathered again in 2009 as 125-year-old St. Mary's Catholic Church was razed.
Just three of the original five buildings remain.
Sacred Heart still is used for students at the parish's Prince of Peace Catholic Academy and College Preparatory in downtown Clinton.
But two others are decommissioned, no longer serving as churches. Instead, volunteers are helping them forge a new path.
St. Boniface Catholic Church
"Look up," one of the men suggests as the small group enters the sanctuary.
The tall, arched ceiling of the old St. Boniface Catholic Church looks just as it has for generations: painted in an intricate design of blue and gold that's both ornate and stunning. The architectural style is called Gothic, and it was meant to celebrate the congregation's German roots when the church was built in 1908, explains 71-year-old Gary Herrity, a volunteer and well-known local historian.
The church was designed in part by a priest known as "Father Tritz," who was fascinated by electricity. That's why light bulbs decorate the very tall and colorful altar, topped with a likeness of St. Boniface himself. The church was also outfitted with a lighted grotto, where water used to flow over its rocks, in the vestibule.
"The church has electrical outlets, but not that many," Herrity said with a laugh. "He had no idea we'd need to run a vacuum in here someday."
On the north end of Clinton, this parish was the second-oldest in the community. Its congregation split from the original, and oldest, St. Irenaeus Catholic Church, and moved temporarily into a former Presbyterian church site before building here, Herrity said.
St. Boniface, located at 2500 Pershing Blvd., has been closed about five years and was decommissioned from use as a Catholic church in 2007.
But a former parish priest had an idea: Wouldn't it be nice to designate one of the churches as a Catholic museum? That's how the Catholic Historical Center at St. Boniface was born.
Someone called a few parishioners, including Herrity, to see whether they would be interested in working on the project of turning the old building into a place where people could see authentic Catholic artifacts and historical documents from the decommissioned Clinton churches.
Of course he was interested, and so were several other parishioners. Soon, that group of volunteers grew to about 30 men and women who work at the old church every Tuesday morning, cataloguing historical items and doing any other work needed around the old place.
"If somebody doesn't step up, these things are going to go," Herrity said. "When they're old, they're in danger. And if they're old and not in use, they're in even more danger."
At first glance, the place still looks like an old - but functioning - church. Most of its original contents are there, including priests' garments and altar boy robes, as well as the large, colorful altar topped with a likeness of St. Boniface himself.
The old church now holds a lot of Catholic memorabilia and artifacts pulled from the other defunct Clinton churches of the same faith - plus donations such as old prayer cards and photos that people have in their family and drop off, volunteers said.
Some of the artifacts are from the Knights of Columbus, Franciscan nuns and the former Mount St. Clare College - all part of Clinton's Catholic heritage, they added.
In a room off to the side, a crucifix is missing its corpus, or body of Christ. It was removed and taken to the parish's new church near Mill Creek Parkway in an effort to represent all of the old churches that were decommissioned, the volunteers said.
But so much remains at St. Boniface for people to see, including an ornately carved wooden confessional that stands in the sanctuary. A person can sit in the priest's compartment, sliding back a divider to hear someone veiled by a curtain in the next compartment confess their sins. A prayer card is still tacked on the wall beside the priest's seat so that he could read the prayer in Latin in case he forgot the words, Herrity pointed out with a laugh.
"This church is pretty remarkable in its own right, too." said Bill Foley, 63, the archivist for the center, who went to St. Boniface and served Mass there beginning when he was a child. "It's like the organ upstairs. I can still remember what it sounded like and it hasn't worked since 1965. The flood took out the bellows in the basement and it's been silent ever since."
But the building's foundation is so strong it doesn't even have a crack in it. The church bells probably still work, too, but no one can reach them. They haven't sounded since the 1990s, recalls one of the group's youngest volunteers, 44-year-old Steven Bell.
Volunteers repeatedly have climbed a set of narrow steps to try to reach the bells, located in the attic - but they just can't budge the board that blocks the ceiling entrance they would need to climb through, Bell explained.
The building needs other work, too, but the group needs money to do it. The volunteers did win a $6,000 grant from the Clinton County Gaming Commission to work on the heating system, insulation and a handicapped-accessibility ramp. But the center has about $10,000 worth of debt after installing a new boiler and other expenses, they said.
The group would need about $1 million to get the museum up and running full-time. They believe the center would be eligible for more outside funds once the parish signed the property over completely to the group.
Right now, the property still belongs to the parish, business manager Dave Schnier said.
"People bemoan churches not being preserved," Herrity said. "Well, this one will be, as it should. This will be more valuable in 100 years, and some people don't realize that. They don't make churches like this anymore, and certainly in 100 years there won't be that many left."
St. Irenaeus Catholic Church
Just a few blocks away from St. Boniface, Clinton County's oldest church - St. Irenaeus Catholic Church - stands on a hill, its steeple visible from the Mississippi River.
On most mornings, a couple of older men work in bone-chilling cold inside the stone church, trying to get the abandoned building back to a functional state. Slowly but surely, it's looking better.
The place has come a long way since June, when volunteers from the Clinton County Historical Society hurriedly signed papers so the entity could become the church's new owner.
All it cost was $1, and a lot of elbow grease.
The work is far from finished, but the small group of volunteers - all senior citizens in their 60s, 70s and 80s - hope to turn St. Irenaeus into a community cultural center that would be open for public events, 71-year-old volunteer Jan Hansen said.
All of the religious symbols and materials are gone except for the church's old Stations of the Cross, carved into the stone walls of the sanctuary and illuminated by tiny lights, and the wood pews. Even the large, ornate altar that once adorned the front of the sanctuary is missing, leaving a bare spot on the floor that marks where it stood for so long.
The church doesn't look exactly the same, but its bones are still there - and those are spectacular, Hansen said. The sanctuary is huge and brightly illuminated by sunshine that pours through large stained-glass windows and bounces off the cathedral ceiling.
The church looks like an old castle, coming back to life.
"St. Irenaeus wants to be saved," Hansen said. "If we need something, it shows up. It's amazing."
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Perhaps the most amazing thing is that St. Irenaeus exists at all. Construction began in 1864, when Abraham Lincoln was president. The place was dedicated in 1869, she said.
"I just can't imagine them cutting all of these stones and hauling them in with horses and carts," she said. "I wish I had been alive to see that. It's just incredible.
As the parish began decommissioning its old churches, St. Irenaeus was locked and forgotten for two to three years. When Hansen and her friends finally got the keys to the place and opened the back door into the lower floor, they were horrified to see the place flooded with water and covered in mold.
The kitchen area downstairs was covered in filth, so volunteers spent countless hours scrubbing it clean. The toilets didn't work, so they replaced them. They also painted walls.
And they found so many melted crayons and old books that they used shovels to scoop them off the floors, Hansen said.
"We've had to deal with what's down here first," she said.
In the far corner of the basement, an old safe - labeled as hailing from the historic Wilson Building in downtown Clinton - sits locked and alone. The ladies have tried cracking the code, listening for clicking sounds to figure out the combination, but their efforts have failed.
"So, we're not so great at being criminals," Hansen said, laughing.
Right now, the church is so cold that visitors can see their breath. There is no heating system in place.
The group got a $7,000 grant from the Iowa State Historical Society to repair the roof. The Clinton County Historical Society also allocated $5,000 to do repairs, while the volunteers all contribute their own time and some money, too.
But the group is going to need more funding to do any major work.
Only about eight people are actively involved in the work, so the group is trying to set up a board of directors to gather more help. Eventually, the church building will stand as a separate entity from the historical society, Hansen said.
"It was either take this church or it would go down," she said, adding that she definitely did not want to see St. Irenaeus face the wrecking ball.
Currently, a Bettendorf architectural firm is in the midst of doing a structural study to see whether the church needs any more major repairs.
Meanwhile, in May, the church will host its first public event since the group took ownership: an art show. The museum has a lot of archived art, too much to display all the time, so it will hold the exhibition May 30. That will be in conjunction with a 5K run/walk called "When the Saints Go Marching In" as a same-day fundraiser to help with the renovations.
Then, on June 4, a cultural center from Minneapolis/St. Paul will bring its exhibit about German prisoners to the center.
"We're really proud of what we've done so far," Hansen said, adding that she hopes to draw people from the Quad-Cities, Dubuque, Iowa, and the Illinois side of the region.
But before the public can enjoy the place, more work needs to be done. So, 71-year-old Tom Foster and 75-year-old Lenny Pease keep coming back with tools in hand.
For them, it's personal. Both men married their wives in the church. The Peases got married in 1955, the Fosters in 1960.
"I remember my knees were shaking," Pease said, laughing.
"I went to school here, too," Foster added. "That's why I'm here. We didn't want to lose any of our churches in town, but especially this one."