By Celine Klosterman
WEST BRANCH — October 1960 was a historic time for West Branch Catholics, Darlene Kabela said.
After years of traveling to churches in Iowa City, West Liberty, Nolan Settlement and other sites, the West Branch faithful celebrated the dedication that month of a church in their own town. “It was very nice to have it in what’s quite a Quaker community,” said Kabela, who has belonged to St. Bernadette Parish since it opened and has served as its religious education coordinator.
On Oct. 17, she and other members of the 140-family parish will celebrate the 50th anniversary of St. Bernadette’s. Among them will be John Beecher Jr., a founding parishioner who recalled a time when the number of families attending Mass in West Branch numbered “about 10 or 20.”
That was more than five decades ago, when Masses were being celebrated in West Branch Municipal Hall. The first Mass was celebrated there in 1956, a year after several women in West Branch formed a Catholic study club. Their passion for the faith contributed to a movement to build a Catholic church.
“We went all out and had some big fundraising dinners in the spring and fall,” said Beecher, who served as treasurer of St. Bernadette’s building fund. “We took in a lot of money at that time.”
In 1958, West Branch-area Catholics launched a $25,000 fundraising campaign. “It is a sacred crusade upon which you are about to undertake … a work for God,” Bishop Ralph Hayes wrote to them. He suggested the planned church be named St. Bernadette, as Catholics that year were observing the 100th anniversary of the Virgin Mary’s apparition to teenager Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, France.
The family of Raymond Vedepo donated two lots for the building; additional land was purchased. Construction began in August 1959.
On Oct. 30, 1960, West Branch native Father Raymond Ruppenkamp celebrated the dedication Mass for what The Catholic Messenger reported was a $64,000 church. Father Ed Catich, a renowned artist and priest of the Davenport Diocese, designed and carved in slate a crucifix, a plaque depicting the Virgin Mary appearing to Bernadette, and Stations of the Cross that were placed in the building.
In 1976, St. Bernadette Parish held a mortgage burning and Mass of thanksgiving. “I remember one fellow told me, ‘John, we’ll never see the church be paid for,’” Beecher recalled. “It was a pretty good feeling” to pay off the mortgage.
Seven years later, the bell from the closed St. Mary Church in Morse was installed at the entrance to St. Bernadette’s. In 1985, the West Branch parish celebrated its 25th anniversary.
For most of its history, St. Bernadette’s was clustered with St. Bridget Parish in Nolan Settlement, whose last Mass was celebrated in 1996. Since then, the West Branch parish has been clustered with St. Joseph Parish in West Liberty, and both are now served by Father Dennis Martin.
Today, Kabela said, St. Bernadette’s has a strong adult choir led by Phyllis Jacobsen and good religious education program, led by Martha Freeman, with “lots of children attending.” The parish is close-knit, Beecher said, and a few of its founding members remain to celebrate its golden anniversary.
“In a small town like ours, what our parish has to offer is a good community spirit,” said Mike Owen, parish council president. “We have a good, committed, core group of people who do a lot to keep St. Bernadette’s going. It is really important to a community like ours to have our own parish.”
Bishop Martin Amos will preside at Mass Oct. 17 at 3:30 p.m. at St. Bernadette Church in West Branch. A luncheon will follow.