Cathedrals in Iowa

Continuing Saturday 16 July

[In La Crosse at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe] I returned to my car and continued along US-14/61 about 120 miles south until I cross the Mississippi again, this time into Iowa. I had to fuel the car along the way, but found a station just under $4 per gallon. Two hours of slowing through small towns, the terrain was hilly, counter to my expectations.


St Raphael’s Cathedral, Dubuque, IA

Hoping for a Saturday evening Vigil Mass at St Raphael’s Cathedral, I was disappointed. Not only no service, but the building was dark and locked. Mass would be a 9am, so I resolved to return after I checked out of the hotel and visit before Mass, and then head west across Iowa.

My travel service reservation was for a Motel 6, but apparently 3 years ago there was a corporate name change to Rodeway Inn. Not knowing this, and following Garmin and Google Maps, I drove Dodge Street numerous times, until I chanced on a local who set me straight. After settling into the conventionally simple room, I walked around into the next strip mall and entered Jumpers Bar & Grill, where I had a side salad, a pound of chicken wings (half ginger, half sriracha, with blue cheese) and a large Amber bock. I completed my journal entries for the day, returned to the room and, after photo backup, emails and reading, went to sleep.



Sunday 17 July

With no breakfast services, and the front door of the reception locked, I left my key and headed back down the hill to the cathedral. With the main entry to the east on Bluff Street, I found a parking spot in the church lot to the north, and entered from the rear through the reception hall. Seeing my camera, I was asked if I was the photographer, as they were welcoming a new priest that morning. My denial and explanation raised a bit of interest in the book Cathedrals to the Glory of God. As the hall is behind the sanctuary and sacristy, I entered the front of the nave, to the right of the altar. Without the lights on, the window over the organ pipes in the loft over the narthex made viewing a challenge.


As the lights were turned on, I was able to appreciate the classic design of the interior. Arches supporting the vault rested on slim columns running through the pews on either side of the main aisle. Using what I suspect is maple or pecan, the reredos spans the width of the sanctuary, and has a second full-width screen placed perhaps 12-feet in front. The altar table, lectern, pulpit and cathedra are all in front of the screen, carved with the same wood. Above the back screen are murals, pairs of saints on either side of a representation of Pentecost. A small pipe organ sits against the side wall, with the stone-inlay baptismal font on the opposite wall.


Over the narthex are more carvings in the loft, which houses the larger organ with central trumpets. The lighting gives the vault and walls a sunny, warm color, mimicking daylight. Narrow dual-panel stained-glass windows feature Old Testament patriarchs and prophets on one side, Church Fathers and saints on the opposite. The side aisle altars along the sanctuary honor Mary with child on the right, Joseph on the left.

Returning to the hall, I passed a stone carving hanging on the wall over the information table, a Last Supper. A lovely rose window with geometric designs surrounding the emblem of the key of St Peter fills the back wall. The folks were gracious and friendly, wishing me safe journeys as I departed. One observation I made was that I saw no representation of the patron, the Archangel Raphael in the cathedral. My route was due south 70 miles on US-61 to Davenport, which is also on the Mississippi River. I set my destination for what I thought was the protestant cathedral.


Sacred Heart Cathedral, Davenport, IA

However, once I arrived, I found I was outside Sacred Heart Cathedral, the Roman Catholic seat. The 9am Mass was just letting out, so I was able to get inside. (My original plan had been to catch the end of the Episcopal service, and then come for Mass in Vietnamese at 11.) On a corner and up a rise from the sidewalk, the single steeple-belltower stands over one of two doorways facing south. Once in the nave, ivory walls with tall stained-glass windows featuring the Apostles contrast with the dark wooden arch beams and struts of the stenciled vault.


At the north end are three dark carved-wood ornate altars, with the main altar about double the size of those on either side at the ends of the side aisles. They honor the Madonna with Child (Eucharist Altar) and Joseph. The ornate and intricately carved high altar features statues of Peter and Paul, with a simpler padded bishop’s armchair in front of where the tabernacle had been placed. Above and behind this altar is a five-panel stained-glass window of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, with angels and the seventeenth century nun Margaret Mary Alacoque.

At the south end of the nave, the loft fills the center space with a large organ, with a rose window with dark blue glass as the field, and deep orange medallions featuring symbols of the bounties of God. After a brief word with the celebrant, I hopped into the car and headed west a half mile to Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.

Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Davenport, IA

The 10am Eucharist service was beginning, presided by the Canon. I joined the congregation and enjoyed his sermon derived from his years as a hospital chaplain, which advised us to spend more time listening to one another.


Similar to the cathedral six blocks away, the walls are relatively unadorned, save the Stations, and the arches and beams supporting the vault are of contrasting dark wood. The windows along the sides are geometric in design. At Trinity, the center pitch is steeper, so no ornamentation. But there is an interesting feature: a band of smaller circular stained-glass windows fill openings which line the junction of the steeper to broader vault sections. Best seen from the loft, the organ has three consoles and looks older, its upper façade continuing the gilding theme found on the pipe casings.


Over the quire, the vault is a pumpkin color with gold stenciling, although the half dome has more intricate illustrations between the dark ribbing. The bishop’s and dean’s chairs back onto high wainscotting paneling. Above this filling the arch of the half dome are windows of images of the apostles.


Walking to the social hour for a cup of coffee, I was directed into the garden chapel. With bowed walls, clear diamonds of rippled glass bracket New Testament scenes, but allow the trees and lawns outside to be viewed. Seated with the Canon, we talked about his sermon, and how I’ve been able to hear many tales as I follow my obsession.



Heading back to my car, the fraternity house of Delta Sigma Chi, a three story building with turret and mansard roofline caught my eye. Definitely better maintained that my old undergraduate fraternity house. A soldier’s monument stood tall in the street outside the cathedral, and I was also able to see a building of Palmer College, where a California neighbor had attended chiropractic school. Leaving Davenport, I had a long stretch ahead, two and a half hours due west on I-80 at speed limits that ranged from 70 to 80 mph. I arrived in the Iowa city which is its capitol a bit before 4pm.

St Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, Des Moines, IA

St Ambrose Cathedral, Des Moines, IA

The two cathedrals are 2-3 blocks apart, on the same side of High Street. Both were closed, and I could raise no one at either building. St Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral indicated it would be open at 9 on Monday, but when I returned the building continued to sit dark. St Ambrose Cathedral had signs indicating it would be open at midday for confessions and Mass. Neither were going to be available to me for interior photos.

Off to the Holiday Inn Express, crossing by bridge over the railyards into southwest Des Moines. New, spiffy, I checked in and unpacked a few essentials. Then I set out for the Capitol Building, across the Des Moines River. (Des Moines is at the junction of it and the smaller Raccoon River.) Closed on Sunday, and being maintained on its northern wing, there were still a good number of memorials and monuments, as well as state buildings to see. A Statue of Liberty, a copy of the Liberty Bell, the Pearl Harbor Flame, Christopher Columbus, Purple Heart; the Judiciary Building and Historical Society with green domes; war memorials, the largest being for the Spanish-American War (1898-1901) but the most moving to me being the Vietnam Memorial. Up on the capital steps, several cannons, including a mortar, all of which are pointed at downtown.


On my return, heading through an area that had several pubs, breweries and restaurants, I decided to have an early dinner. The Iowa Taproom offered a range of ales, and the option to select a sampler of 4. My selections were Keg Creek’s Brick Red, West O’s Smoked Red, Big Rock’s Honey Badger Brown, and Exile’s GG. For food I started with cheese steak egg rolls (beef, American cheese, red pepper, Anaheim pepper and onion; all rolled up in a wonton and served with honey sriracha.) My main choice was the lobster artichoke melt, but they were out, so I opted for blackened salmon tacos (blackened salmon, grilled corn tortilla, shredded cabbage, lime corn salsa topped with horseradish cream sauce, served with lemon rice.)


With all that excellent food and delicious beverages, I was full, so I headed back to my lodgings. Backing up photos again, minor emails, I spent most of my time reading and relaxing. With king pillows on a king bed, I was quite comfortable.

[Note: an earlier blog reported my visit to the Cathedral of the Epiphany in Sioux City, Iowa.]


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