By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
IOWA CITY — When St. Patrick Church in Iowa City succumbed to an F-2 tornado in 2006, members of the parish rallied to build a new church. On June 7, with their nearly 6-year-old church as a backdrop, more than 700 members of the parish celebrated a mortgage burning ritual and the generosity and prayers that brought the parish to that point.
As it turned out, the symbolic gesture mimicked real-life. Just as it had taken a whole parish to pay off the mortgage, it took more than one person to ignite the seemingly flame-retardant “certificate.” The pastor, Father Rudolph Juarez tried in vain to get the certificate to ignite. “Do we have any Boy Scouts in here?” he asked jokingly. Members of the parish quickly stepped in to help him finish the job.
The coincidence did not go unnoticed by Fr. Juarez. “People united around the effort to build this church. They bought in with hard work, financial and emotional support. Without them we couldn’t have done this. That’s why this is such a joyful day for us,” he said.
Amid bounce houses, the music of a mariachi band and a potluck dinner featuring American and Mexican entrees, members of the parish celebrated as they recalled the parish’s journey.
Event organizer Cheryl Schropp recalled being in the church the night the tornado hit, as Fr. Juarez shepherded the 50-or-so parishioners to safety. When they emerged from the rectory basement hours later, they were “blinded” by cameras and cell phones photographing the damage. Yet, even in their shock and devastation, she said the parishioners felt a sense of hope. “Around 2:30 a.m., with firefighters and other safety personnel accompanying him, Fr. Rudy entered the church building to retrieve the Blessed Sacrament and found the tabernacle candle burning brightly — even though the roof of the church was torn off and the choir loft had fallen through the floor to the ground! Our God was present in the midst of it all!”
The insurance settlement was about $2.6 million — enough to cover costs to restore the church in its downtown location. However, the parish decided to consider the future needs of its expanding membership by purchasing a lot outside of city limits and building a new church campus, said office manager Lila Scott. Once a predominately Irish congregation, the multicultural parish is home to a growing number of Hispanic families and features a weekly Spanish Mass.
To cover the remaining costs for the $14 million lot and new construction, the parish sold its downtown property and its parish hall, undamaged by the tornado. Together, these properties brought in about $5.3 million. The parish started a capital campaign to raise approximately $5 million to complete the project. Hills Bank and Trust Company in Hills offered the parish a loan of just more than $2 million to cover upfront costs.
Earlier this spring, the parish paid off the mortgage, thanks to the generosity of parishioners, community members and strangers, Scott said. The campus contains two worship spaces and a parish hall that is often used for diocesan meetings and other multi-parish events.
Parishioners Bertha and Juan Lopez attended the celebration. Bertha said, “We overcame that disaster and here we are with the new church and it’s finally ours! We had our challenges and here we are, united!”
Teresa O’Neil said, “It means so much to have this beautiful place to worship. We were able to come together and accomplish this under Fr. Rudy’s leadership.” The longtime parishioner attended the celebration with her husband, Tim.
The parish still has a few goals for the building, including installation of stained-glass windows, but such projects are small in scale and will be done as funds become available, Scott said.
Lifelong parishioner Ken Donnelly said, “It isn’t that we don’t still need money in the collection basket, but one of our big worries is finally over. We’re not going to have to build an addition or a parish hall because it’s all here in one beautiful edifice. This should be here 200 years from now if they take care of it!