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'We will make a joyful noise': Davenport Catholics plan to say goodbye to St. Mary's with organ concert, procession
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'We will make a joyful noise': Davenport Catholics plan to say goodbye to St. Mary's with organ concert, procession

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St. Mary Catholic Church has been closed, but members of the historic west Davenport landmark are planning joyous closing ceremonies to assure she gets the goodbye she — and they — deserve.

Bishop Thomas Zinkula, head of the Davenport Diocese, announced in February that the church would "merge" with downtown St. Anthony, effective July 1. The reason, cited by St. Mary's pastor in a meeting with parish leaders, was because of a shortage of priests that will become more severe in the near future with impending retirements.

The property including the church, rectory and former convent and school, located on 4.5 acres, is being sold. An offer from a nonprofit organization is being negotiated, John Cooper, business manager and pastoral associate for St. Anthony, said.

But before the church slips away, there will be a public concert of the church's one-of-a-kind organ on Saturday, Oct. 10, and a Farewell Mass, offered by Bishop Zinkula on Sunday, Oct. 11, followed by a procession through the streets of Davenport, ending at St. Anthony, about 1.5 miles to the east.

The significance of the procession is that when the cornerstone for St. Mary's was laid in 1867, St. Anthony was the "mother church," and a throng estimated at 5,000 people, including members of the city's three other Catholic churches, processed from the downtown west to where the new church would rise, according to a church history published in 1967.

Now, the reverse will happen. At the head of the procession will be a person carrying a monstrance, a gold, cross-shaped object, with a windowed compartment in the middle for the exposition of the Eucharist, the consecrated wafer that Catholics believe to be the Body of Christ. 

Procession participants will include Azteca dancers in colorful costumes — St. Mary's has a sizeable Hispanic population — members of the Knights of Columbus, decked out in full regalia including capes, drummers and 14 altar servers in white cassocks.

"It's planned to be quite a show," said Lars Anderson, who is leading the closing committee. "We will make a joyful noise." The latter refers to Psalm 98 that admonishes all the earth to "make a joyful noise unto the Lord."

Anderson, 62, is a graduate of St. Mary's former elementary school who recently returned to the Quad-Cities after spending his adult life on the West Coast.

"I could feel the sadness from friends," he said of the mood around St. Mary when he returned. "I thought I could find a joyful way to say good-bye. I want to help with this emotional and challenging time. The diocese would have locked the door and walked away with no program or plan."

Art collection, pipe organ

In addition to planning ceremonies, Anderson and others have taken up the cause of finding new homes for the church's organ, believed to be the oldest playing pipe organ in the Mississippi River Valley, and its historic art collection.

Primary among the collection are 14 paintings of the Stations of the Cross created in 1870-71 by Davenport artist Charles Fick and a sublime painting of the Assumption of Mary inspired by Italian Renaissance painter Guido Reni.

Measuring nine feet high and six feet wide, the painting was purchased in Belgium in 1893 by Celestine Fejervary, Anderson said. Celestine was a daughter of Nicholas Fejervary, a Hungarian nobleman who fled to Davenport, built an estate on land that is now Fejervary Park and was a member of St. Mary.

The hope is that the Stations of the Cross and the Mary painting can be relocated to St. Anthony's new parish center.

But it is the organ for which Anderson feels the most affinity. That's partly because he grew up with it and partly because it is a uniquely magnificent musical instrument.

 "I sang with her as a child," Anderson said. "As a working class kid in a family of five, I didn't know of the Quad-City Symphony Orchestra, but I did know the majesty of sound of a real organ."

The organ was built by the Moline Pipe Organ Co., founded by two men from London. It contains 1,000 pipes, ranging from 16 feet tall that have the lowest "voice" to about two feet tall that have the highest.

One not familiar with organs can easily get lost as Anderson extols, with growing excitement and detail, all the features of the "voice of St. Mary's." There are the double keyboard, the pedals and the mechanisms that can change the sound to that of a trumpet, flute, violin or bass and that can allow the player to sound four octaves simultaneously.

The concert, goal of finding new home

Because it is impossible to describe in words how magnificent the organ sounds, a concert has been scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 10, on the grounds so that people can hear for themselves.

And because not every musician is capable of playing an organ to its full potential, Anderson has hired Chris Nelson, organist and music director at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Davenport, to perform the concert. Nelson, who also is on the music faculty at Augustana College, Rock Island, is expected to "play the socks off her," Anderson said.

The concert "will awaken our sleeping beauty," he continued. "They (the audience) is going to be shocked when they hear her."

In order for people to hear from their outside seats, the windows of the church will be open and a speaker system will be set up.

Invitations have been sent to every Catholic parish in Davenport and to other churches as well.

Following the concert, there will be 'open bench' opportunity in which organists who would like to play the historic organ can do so for 10-minute intervals.

"This is a church organ and this is a church, but this is not a church service," Anderson said. Musicians can play the Beatles and Queen if they want. "We welcome them to come and surprise us."

Because the organ is such a treasure, the group is hoping to save it by raising $50,000 to have an organ specialist "take it apart, fix what needs fixing and move her" to an entity that will use it, Anderson said.

"A pipe organ is a living and breathing thing," he explained. If it is not cared for and played, "it will just die and get to the point where it won't be affordable to fix.

"All we need is a new home for her."

For both the concert and Mass, Fillmore Street in front of the church will be closed so that there can be seating on the grounds and in the street to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines.

For the Mass, an altar will be brought out onto the steps.

The goal is to "make a joyful noise unto the Lord," Anderson said. 

"We don't want to leave St. Mary's in sadness. We want to leave in joy." 

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