By Celine Klosterman
Ryan Clarahan grew up across the yard from St. Elizabeth Church in Harper.
Now, his family owns and lives in the church’s rectory. And eventually, he plans to build a house where the church now stands.
In August, he bought the 126-year-old building from Holy Trinity Parish in Keota for $1. The farmer will cover demolition costs for the church, one of two aging buildings Holy Trinity sold this summer. Until July, that parish had included three churches: St. Elizabeth’s, Ss. Peter & Paul Church in Clear Creek, and St. Mary Church in Keota. Ss. Peter & Paul was sold July 1 to a group of parishioners who rallied to preserve it. St. Mary Church is continuing to celebrate weekend Masses.
Concern about maintenance costs for the Harper and Clear Creek churches prompted meetings on their future more than a year ago, said Jeff Garman, parish council president. “We didn’t want the churches to sit around and fall apart. The respectful thing may have been to (tear them down). You hate to do it, but when you don’t have the money to keep them up…”
St. Elizabeth’s and Ss. Peter & Paul hadn’t even been used for weekend Masses since Holy Trinity clustered with St. Mary Parish in Sigourney three years ago, noted Richard Weber. He is Holy Trinity’s bookkeeper and a finance council member, and was baptized at St. Elizabeth’s.
“It’s hard to see the church go, but that’s the way it is,” he said.
Holy Trinity at first considered auctioning St. Elizabeth’s contents to pay for demolition, but wasn’t sure proceeds would cover the estimated $60,000 cost of tearing it down.
Clarahan, meanwhile, thought church property would be a good place to build a house for his wife and three children. So he bought St. Elizabeth’s, thus saving Holy Trinity the expense of demolition. He said he’ll get proceeds from any auction of church contents.
He expects demolition to begin next spring or summer, after Bishop Martin Amos celebrates a final Mass for St. Elizabeth’s Oct. 18 at 2 p.m.
Holy Trinity plans to set up a memorial for the church in a nearby cemetery.
For Ss. Peter & Paul, however, there’ll be no need for a memorial. Determined to save the 111-year-old Clear Creek church from possible demolition, a group of Catholics formed the Clear Creek Heritage Association to buy and preserve the building. The association raised $80,000 from about 60 parishioners to maintain the church for the next 10 years, a feat stipulated by a corporate resolution that Holy Trinity and diocesan officials approved. So on July 1, the association bought the church from Holy Trinity for $1.
The association’s success reflects the wishes of the “whole community,” parishioner Tom Baker said. He noted that though Holy Trinity explored tearing down Ss. Peter & Paul, the parish couldn’t find anyone willing to demolish it. “No one would bid on it.”
In contrast Michael Berg, spokesperson for the association, said a parishioner who went door-to-door seeking donations for Ss. Peter & Paul received money from “nearly everyone.” Baker said supporters pledged $45,000 in one afternoon.
Donations will go toward maintaining the church’s roof and steeple, and have paid for materials volunteers used to install a drainage system in the basement. Volunteers also have brought the church’s electrical system up to code, insulated the attic, tiled the basement, updated church gutters and are working to install a new boiler. “I think our community can get people to keep it up each year,” Berg said, adding that local farmers already have donated 2,000 hours of labor.
Baker is also confident the community will keep supporting Ss. Peter & Paul. “Almost everyone who still farms in that neighborhood has connections to that church,” he said.
“It’s always been our community center,” Berg said of the small Clear Creek township. Parishioners hope that even though Ss. Peter & Paul no longer has the status of a Catholic church, it can continue serving as a civic center. The association plans to rent the church out for dinners, non-Catholic weddings and other events. The first such event — a wedding — is slated for November.
“It’s a very pretty church,” Berg said. Three hand-carved, 19th-century altars stand along the front of the building, and German names of saints — including Ss. Petrus and Paulus and St. Franz (St. Francis) — adorn stained-glass windows and bells. The church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Clear Creek Heritage Association hopes for more national recognition. Berg is publicizing its efforts, and the group is applying for grants.
“In no way do we want to jeopardize the integrity of our Catholic community,” he said. “We just want to preserve the church.”
To donate, write to Berg at 22835 300th Ave., Harper, IA 52231 or call him at (319) 461-3281. People who donate by Jan. 30, 2010, will be considered founding members of the association and will have their names listed in the church, Baker said.