IN 1835, when pigs wallowed in the muddy lanes of what was to become Davenport, the city was blessed with a magical holy mound, declared to spare the city from tornadoes.
While communities around us were battered Friday afternoon, was it the Mass Mound that saved Davenport once again?
Never has the city been struck by a devastating tornado. However you look at it, something is working. Some claim that the confluence of the Mississippi and Rock rivers has had something to do with sparing us from twisters. I prefer to say it was the Mass Mound.
“Mass Mound” is a misnomer. There’s no mound that I could ever find, but a concrete “altar” to represent its spirit stands in Bettendorf on the campus of Rivermont Collegiate. A few weeds were growing Friday from a ridge of the altar, and as homage after the storms I plucked them to tidy it up. A bottle-greenish moss clings to the altar, and it is surrounded by hostas
Is this symbol, in its 172nd summer, the object that has spared us from tornadoes? Only Ares, the Greek god of storms, really knows. Today, the altar’s shady little nook is below the window of what was the Oriental breakfast room in the mansion of Joseph Bettendorf, whose home Rivermont now occupies.
The first Mass Mound was not really an altar at all, but a mound on a hillside. It came to the fore in 1835 in the woodsy bluffs of what now is Tremont Avenue and East 12th Street. There, it is claimed, the first Christian religious ceremony was performed in this section of Iowa. The Rev. Charles Van Quickenborne, a dauntless Jesuit missionary, erected a giant cross of native walnut and a temporary altar on what he called a Mass Mound. He offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, blessing the hamlet below (now Davenport) against the tornadoes that had been devastating this Mississippi River valley.
The Mass Mound and its cross became a blessed spot. The late Rev. Rowland Philbrook, an Episcopal minister from Davenport, researched the mysterious plot for a little booklet. He wrote: “It is the most sacred spot in Davenport, if not the entire region.”
Father Palamourges, an early pastor of St. Anthony’s Church, regularly meditated under the cross. Church records note: “When wrestling with problems of his little parish, or called upon to make some critical decision, he was known to spend the entire night in prayer at the Mass Mound.”
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It was a spiritual place where Christians felt a certain aura of well-being. Penciled entries in the journal of J.M.D. Burrows, one of the city’s early finest, noted there was an atmosphere of sacredness at the site.
That Mass Mound, though intended to protect Davenport from twisters, also may have saved much of the city from fiery destruction. In 1901, several lumberyards went up in flames. Heat was so intense that trolley tracks were twisted like pretzels. The fire burned to the edge of the Mass Mound, where the wind shifted back toward the river. An old priest, Father Mulcahey, who was present amid the smoke and embers, remarked at the time: “It cannot reach the Mass Mound.”
When St. Katharine’s School and the Episcopal Church bought the Davenport site, the Mass Mound’s location was even more clearly defined. A concrete altar was dedicated on a hillock of the school grounds. When St. Katharine’s moved to the former Bettendorf mansion — now Rivermont — the altar went along. There it sounds, stained and showing its years. The original woody Mass Mound location is now part of a residential care facility.
I explored it again late Friday afternoon. As always, I never found any hint of a mound.