By Lindsay Steele
My love affair with old Catholic churches is no secret to my family, friends and coworkers. I’m blessed to be able to attend Mass at one of them — St. Mary’s in Davenport — but there is a church about three hours from Davenport that first stole my heart.
Sacred Heart Church in Oelwein, Iowa; “Secret Heart,” in the words of my toddler self.
I remember the tall spires and the three arched entryways. The stained glass windows were colorful and majestic. The church smelled like incense, and when the organ played “Gather Us In” — a popular hymn in the 1980s — it felt like God was singing to me. I can’t say that I was in love with Mass at that age, as I was more interested in whatever coloring books mom gave me to play with during the service, but I was in love with the church itself. It had all the charm of a typical turn-of-the-century brick Catholic church.
I had the unique experience of being old enough to remember my baptism. My sister and I were baptized at the same time by Father Jim “Shorty” Goedken; I was 3-1/2, and she was an infant. I wore a pink dress, and even though my godfather — my uncle Todd — didn’t have to hold me, he stood next to me at the baptismal font. Afterward, we had a party.
When I was 12, my father got a new job in a seemingly far off-place called Geneseo, Ill. We joined St. Malachy’s there. Architecturally, it was very different from Sacred Heart. This church was about 85 years newer and designed in an open, airy style. Even though Father Michael Pakula was a wonderful priest, and I enjoyed the shorter drive to church, I pined for that old-fashioned church back in Oelwein.
Fast forward 13 years to 2010. I had just moved to Davenport, and not long after, started dating my now-husband Chris. A week after our first date, he invited me to attend Mass at St. Mary’s and meet his mother and grandmother for the first time. At the time, I didn’t have a home church. When I stepped inside, Sacred Heart’s old fashioned beauty was right there again. This was the kind of church I’d dreamed of attending again. There they were — the spires, the stained glass and even a beautiful altarpiece to complete the marvelous structure. I didn’t notice the peeling paint on the ceiling or the rickety staircase leading up to the choir loft. I saw only my childhood memories flooding back.
Turns out, Chris’s grandmother knew exactly what I was talking about. She revealed during our first conversation that she’d grown up in Oelwein, and was baptized in the same church as me. Adding to my nostalgia is the fact that one of my new coworkers at the diocese — Sister Laura Goedken, OP, is the late Fr. Goedken’s sister.
When Chris and I were married at St. Mary’s in 2012, it was a dream come true — marrying the man I loved in a beautiful church. My sister is getting married next spring in Peoria, Ill., and even though she does not attend Mass regularly, she revealed that she, too, is nostalgic for the old-style church. “That’s the kind of church that feels like church to me,” she said. She plans to join and get married in one of the beautiful old Catholic churches downtown, either St. Joseph’s or, coincidentally, Sacred Heart.
People have different preferences when it comes to church. There are many things that make churches special, most of all the fact that God is present wherever two or more people meet (Matt. 18:20).
The truth is, one doesn’t need an old cathedral to connect with God. Editor Barb loves the simple elegance of her parish, Our Lady of the River in LeClaire. Assistant Editor Anne Marie enjoys the modern beauty of St. Pius X in Rock Island. Ill. I know that there are many wonderful churches in the Diocese of Davenport, and I look forward to visiting them all. But for my sister and me, the old churches will always remind us of home.
(Editor’s note: Lindsay Steele is a reporter for The Catholic Messenger. Edge of 30 is a new bi-monthly column directed toward young adult Catholics in the Diocese. Contact her with story ideas and comments/questions at email@example.com or by phone at 563-888-4248.)