A taste of life along the Great River Road

Getting to know
Guttenberg, Garnavillo & North Buena Vista

By Dan Russo

Witness Editor

This is the first in a series focusing on communities of the archdiocese.

GUTTENBERG — Driving down Hwy.  52 towards the parishes of St. Mary in Guttenberg, St. Joseph in Garnavillo and Immaculate Conception in North Buena Vista, a traveler will  see at points, signs marking sections of the “Great River Road” which stretches from the origin of the Mississippi up north all the way down to its mouth in Louisiana.

These  three linked rural Catholic parishes are in a part of Clayton County, which unlike most of Iowa’s flat landscape, features rocky bluffs and hills. Father Marvin Bries, 71, knows all the curves and inclines on the main throughfares and smaller county roads. He’s been pastor of the three parishes for the last 17 years. During this time he’s also gotten to know the people almost as well as the roads.

“River towns had their own mystique and identity over the years. They used to have pirates that would raid the boats,” reflected the history buff as he drove through one particular shortcut on the way from “Buenie,” the local nickname for North Buena Vista, a small community of about 100 families, to Guttenberg, a city of about 1,900 people that hugs the water. Garnavillo rounds out the trio of communities with about 750 residents. All three parishes support the St. Mary-Immaculate Conception School, a K-8 learning center with about 80 students, contained in a brick building next to St. Mary’s Church.

An important part of the priest’s weekdays involves helping to serve the hot lunch in the church cafeteria and teaching religion and local church history to eighth-graders. He tries to teach them that there’s joy in following Christ, as well as inculcating a sense of reverence for the sacred.

“I haven’t lost my sense of humor, that’s the important thing,” said Father Bries. “Kids are funny, they think you’re supposed to be this holy, pious guy and walk around with a hallow on your head. They get to see the other side too. On Christmas, the kids sing ‘Happy Birthday Baby Jesus,’ and they get a cupcake and anything left over gets tossed up in the air. We study who our potential preschoolers are. A lot of them are not Catholic, but they know we have a loving environment, so it attracts them.”

A view of the Mississippi and surrounding bluffs from a rural road between Guttenberg and Garnavillo on a recent January afternoon. (Witness photos by Dan Russo)

Like many rural communities, the parishes have been dealing with a faithful, but aging population as people have had fewer children or moved away. In recent years, however, the simple, high quality life and connection to family in these small rivertowns has attracted many natives to return and also piqued the interest of newcomers.

“There’s a lot of support here,” said Joanne Hedemann, principal of St. Mary-I.C. School. “We’ve gained students in the last two years. We right now are the only school in the Keystone Area Education Agency (territory) that had a proficiency increase between fall and spring last year of 9.6 percent. No other school or district did that. The state itself had a .8 proficiency increase. Over the last five years we’ve tightened up our curriculum. How we use our personnel here makes a difference.When people come here, they feel that family culture right away.”

Hedemann’s personal story is emblematic of the family atmosphere of the school and rural parishes. She is a native who moved out of the area for a while, pursuing a career in public education for 32 years. Her daughter Erin Schmelzer moved back to Guttenberg about 15 years ago, taking a job as school secretary and IT technical support staffer while her children enrolled as students. With several grandchildren in the school, Hedemann came on board as principal about 5 years ago after her predecessor retired. The mother and daughter work together daily and have integrated well back into the community.

A unique mural from St. Mary Church in Guttenberg, believed to be one of the only of its kind, portrays Mary and Jesus at the bedside of a dying Joseph. The mural was refurbished as part of a major 2007 renovation to the building.

“We’re definitely a rivertown,” said Schmelzer of the city. “Everybody has a boat. Sports are big. We’re probably the only school in the state that doesn’t have a gym.”

As a result, the Catholic school students participate in local public school sports programs. While the institution may not have the same physical facilities as others, the faith-centered curriculum sets  it apart. Gail Broxon, a paraprofessional at the school, is an area native who left to join the Navy. She then came back to Guttenberg with her husband to raise a family about 15 years ago.

“I treat (the students) like they’re my own,” she said.

Broxon, like others on the staff, explained that the school philosophy centers on the question, “What would Jesus do?”   

“Many times that is the definitive factor in whether a child will move on and get back in the classroom as opposed to not being able to bring that peace, and struggling throughout the day,” said Hedemann.


St. Mary’s, the largest of the three linked parishes, is the site of the school — a central point for the Catholic community in the area. Missionary priests from France tended to the first Catholics in the area in the 1830s, calling it “Prairie la Porte.” In 1845, a group of German immigrants arrived and changed the name to honor printing press inventor Johann Gutenberg. Somehow an extra ‘t’ got in the town’s name and it stuck. The parish was founded in 1851, with a school opening about 2 years later, and a convent coming in 1870. For many years, the Franciscan Sisters of the Perpetual Adoration of LaCrosse, Wisconsin served the school and church. Sister Suzanne Gallagher, a Dubuque Presentation, was principal for years before retiring. For many decades, the town was known as a tight-knit community which could be a bit reserved toward newcomers, but that has changed over time, according to Don Scherbring, St. Mary’s Pastoral Council president, who has lived in the community since the 1970s.

“Most of the people that are strangers, we welcome them in,” explained Scherbring. ”It’s more friendly than it used to be many years ago.”

The city is home to Clayton Ridge Public High School. A longtime faculty member is Deacon James Pfaffly, who also leads faith formation programs at the linked parishes for Catholics who attend public school. He also leads much of the marriage preparation for couples.

“Clayton county does not have a three color stop light in the whole county,” said the deacon. “I think we take pride in that. We are rural. We know each other and take care of each other.”

Some of the residents own farms or are in the agriculture business, focusing on hay and grain since dairy farming has become more challenging in recent years. Some work at Kann Manufacturing, a major business in town. Others are retired, and may pay a visit to Rausch’s Café, a small establishment that is a gathering center and font for local news. In 2011, the diner gained fame as a campaign stop for President Barrack Obama. The city is also distinguished by having its own community hospital connected to Mercy Hospital in Dubuque.

In the summer time, the population of all three towns, especially Guttenberg, swells with the addition of seasonal tourists.

“We have some vacationers that have cabins on the islands,” said Scherbring.

The two islands are in a nearby lake that is popular for fishing and has an airport that hosts “fly-ins” by people with small planes. The area also draws motorcyclists who love its winding roads and scenic views. There are several businesses that cater to these tourists, including the bar and restaurant called Bootleggers, which Deacon Pfaffly recently became part owner of, in cooperation with his daughter, who returned to town in June to enter the business.

“Some people may think it strange for a deacon to own part of a biker bar and restaurant, but I like to think that it gives me another way to reach some people that I would normally not be in contact with and I can minister to,” said Deacon Pfaffly.

A major unifying moment for St. Mary’s came in 2007 when the parish began a major renovation project. Father Bries got the ball rolling several years earlier with a roof replacement project. The inside repairs, overseen by a Cresco-based company, involved the entire parish, with volunteers helping to carry in and set up the scaffolding. People of all age groups also helped remove the stained glass windows for repairs and did a thousand other smaller jobs, keeping the costs down.

The football field and track for the local school district is named after Stephen D. Shannon, a member of St. Mary Parish who was killed while serving in the  army in Iraq. On side altars at all three linked parishes, photos of active duty military related to parish members are displayed.


St. Joseph in Garnavillo has its origins with a mission chapel founded in 1843 called St. Bridget’s, the first Catholic Church building in the county. It had a school from the 1880s-1969. It currently serves about 130 families. St. Joseph’s also has a cemetery and two other cemeteries that are connected to St. Michael’s in Garber and Sacred Heart in Littleport. These parishes were closed following a major flood of the Volga River decades ago, but former members are still in the area and help out with the parish’s annual Lenten fish fries, which raise money for the parish and the three cemeteries’ upkeep.    

“We take great pride in our parish and that shows with all the people who volunteer,” said Bill Robinson, chair of the parish finance committee.

A view of downtown Garnavillo from Hwy. 52, which runs directly through the city of about 750 people. The parish of St. Joseph in Garnavillo serves the town and surrounding farms. A factory for Guttenberg Industries in town employs about 120 workers. Popular gathering places include the Thomas Dairy Bar and Cafe and Speedy Stop Convenience Store.

The 55-year-old moved to the town for a job at a local bank and married his wife, Lisa, in the 1990s. He converted to Catholicism and the couple raised two children in the area, which has a diverse ecumenical landscape for a smaller town. It also features two Lutheran churches and an evangelical church.

Back in 2000, the Robinsons were recruited to take on more responsibilities by the resident pastor at the time, Father Richard Gaul.

“He was preparing us for the transition,” recalled Robinson. “We were getting less number of priests that led us into deciding how are we going to run the parish with an absence of a priest on the premises.”

Now, because of that transition process, the three linked parishes are able to share a pastor and function well due to aid from the laity. Robinson, with others, serves on the finance committee and parish council, and his wife leads the choir. Others have stepped into administrative and maintenance roles once occupied by clergy so that Father Bries and Deacon Pfaffly can focus on sacramental and ministry responsibilities.

St. Joseph’s, aside from the fish fries, hosts an annual hog roast and a yearly get together where volunteers come together to do maintenance on the facilities.

North Buena Vista

Immaculate Conception Parish in North Buena Vista is a small parish with a colorful history. The name of the town, meaning “Beautiful View” was given by early Spanish explores. The parish also dates back to the early 1800s during the frontier days. Legend has it that its own “Annie Oakley,” named Anna Row was a brave and efficient horsewoman. She was a rural mail carrier who accepted treacherous  routes others refused.

Next to the red brick church, there is a parish hall where you can still see the evidence of places where pioneers pulled up their wagons.

These days the parish is known for its “Buenie Picnic” held each summer the  day before Labor Day. The gathering draws most of the town and people of the surrounding areas. On a high bluff overlooking the river sits the parish cemetery and a large crucifix donated by the Midnight Riders Motorcycle Club. A grotto designed by a former parish priest also sits on another part of the hill.

Immaculate Conception Church is located in North Buena Vista. There are about 100 families in the parish. The town is known by locals as “Buenie.”

A major gathering point, other than the two bars in town, is Breitbach Garage, a family owned business since 1928 where there is a constant flurry of activity.


“We’ve got good people here,” said Mary Breitbach, a member of Immaculate Conception for 75 years. “We always like to welcome people into the parish and into the community.”

Breitbach and her husband David sold the business to their son Al and his wife Pam, but still help out. They were among those involved in recent efforts to upgrade the church basement.

Two local mothers help organize a children’s Mass regularly where youth take on key roles.  Parish council president Marv Errthum says the community works together to keep up the facilities, but the parish is about much more than just the buildings.   

“Everyone has their specific jobs,” he said. “The church doesn’t make the parish. The people make the parish.”

Father Marvin Bries is pictured with Mary and Pam Breitbach outside of their family business Jan. 4.

The three linked parishes recently came together in a show of community spirit to help Father Bries who was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor in 2018. He had emergency surgery and was back to ministry within about a month. In a Christmas letter to the parishes, he thanked the people for their support.

“When you have hundreds of people praying for YOU, God does listen and performs a miracle for this priest of God,” he wrote. “Therefore, I am celebrating a Christmas miracle this year with my three linked parish families.”

Cover photo: Students at St. Mary-Immaculate Conception School in Guttenberg eat lunch Jan. 4 with staff member Gail Broxon (back row, second from left) (Photo by Dan Russo/The Witness)

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