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Mary Wilwert can’t wait. This time next year, she hopes to attend Mass at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in downtown Davenport and then simply walk next door to enjoy camaraderie and sweet rolls in a new parish center.

Wilwert and the large St. Anthony’s congregation have begun to see a significant change to the property that sits in the heart of downtown Davenport.

The Church Square at 4th and Main streets is undergoing its first major construction in 60 years. 

A new structure of the sort is rarely seen along Davenport’s historic Main Street.

A 7,200-square-foot building, referred to as the Gathering Center, will replace the rectory, a circa-1877 structure that has had six or seven additions made to it, but none since 1949. The $1.8 million project is to be completed by Easter.

The work comes after years of planning, angst on the part of some parishioners concerned about change to a beloved edifice, initial design details that ultimately were changed and a capital campaign conducted during a financially challenging time.

“We are all very sensitive that the new addition will complement the existing church,” Tom Fennelly said. The senior vice president for Russell Construction Co., Davenport, will manage the design and construction of the structure. Russell got involved in the project six months ago.

The project design keeps a focus on St. Anthony’s Church, a building that dates to 1850 and is south of the original 1837 church structure. The plan replicates the façade that faces Main Street, architect Greg Gowey said. It is proportionately designed with complementary windows and an arched entrance.

Officials hope the new building’s landscaping will make it blend seamlessly into the Church Square property. “We hope that in two years you won’t know that it hasn’t been there the whole time,” church business manager Dennis Flaherty said.

The original St. Anthony’s was founded 172 years ago as the second church west of the Mississippi River. (The first one, in Dubuque, Iowa, was demolished in 1850.) That circa-1837 building on the church campus is slated for renovation itself.

 

‘Good-sized space’

The Gathering Center, called a “good-sized space” by the builder, includes classrooms with moveable walls for religious education classes, church offices, a new kitchen and a renovated “McAnthony’s Window,” the outreach program that feeds homeless and indigent people. 

The center will hold up to 300 people and is also intended to host get-togethers such as wedding receptions, funeral luncheons and fellowship activities after regular church services.

The Davenport Historic Preservation Commission approved the demolition of the rectory in March and has given tentative approval to the overall plans, commission member Fritz Miller said. “It’s been a pleasure to work with St. Anthony’s,” he said. “They came to us and were willing to listen to our concerns, too.”

Items that still require approval are the final choice of stone for the addition’s façade, window details and colors, exterior trim and roofing, among others, Fennelly said. The stone is the most expensive part of the project and will make the addition appear to be a simple extension of the church, he noted.

The rectory is being razed this week, with activity slated to begin in earnest Monday. Parts of that building and some landscaping items are being salvaged and will be available for reuse via such sites as Habitat ReStore in Davenport. 

A huge sycamore tree is being removed, but the builders hope to preserve a beautiful maple tree at the northwest corner of the property. A large bronze sculpture also will stay put. “We’ll work around it,” Fennelly said.

Also reclaimed from the rectory and to be used in the new center are the fireplace, its ornate front door and two stained-glass panels.

 

Parishioners accept change

The ability to share time with others is one reason Bill Lucas supports the building project. Lucas, the president of the St. Anthony’s Parish Council, remembers outdoor events that had to be held under a tent and in the garage. 

“Now, hopefully, with this space, we will be able to commune every Sunday with our people. That’s the sort of thing we are looking for,” he said.

The cost involved is money well-spent to meet a clear need, said Joe Scott of Davenport, a church member for 20 years. “It is going to be a very fine addition, and people have to believe in it to make it work.”

There was some opposition to the process, he added, from those who did not want any impact on the historic buildings. 

But St. Anthony’s congregation has spilled over into a nearby hotel and other spaces to accommodate activities that the Church Square does not have space for. “We really need a place to come together,” Wilwert, of Davenport, said. She has been active at St. Anthony’s since 1975 and described a recent 97th birthday celebration on behalf of a beloved parishioner for which the new space would have been perfect.

It took foresight and courage for church officials to tackle the sensitive project, said Fennelly, who works on many construction projects at religious sites for his firm. “To be part of this, with such historical significance, is personally fulfilling and professionally challenging and exciting,” he added.

Flaherty, the business manager, hopes his children and grandchildren will enjoy St. Anthony’s as much as he has for many years. “By making a few changes, if that’s what we have to do, then that’s what we have to do,” he said.

St. Anthony’s will be able to host far more events once the addition is completed.

“I can’t wait to flip the first pancake in the new kitchen,” Lucas said.

 

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