Country parish celebrates expansion
SS. Peter & Paul finishes phase one of construction
By Sue Stanton
GILBERT — Everyone knows just how hard it is to push a boulder up hill or move against the tide. Throughout the Arab world, a spiritual belief that “All things happen in God’s time, not ours” gives support to our Catholic belief of “Patience is a virtue.”
Ironically, one small Iowa parish, whose patience bucked the trend of proposed clustering throughout Iowa, has pushed their boulder uphill against all odds; outlasting the tide of nationwide Catholic parish closings by holding onto their roots and waiting for better days.
That day has now come.
The little country church of SS. Peter and Paul in Gilbert, Iowa, has stayed in its original location since its building in 1916, according to longtime parish member Derral Tressler. His wife, Anna, has been a lifetime member there. Married for 65 years, Derral said, “There are very few names of the original church members left. It is home to us. We have been promoted to the oldest couple in the parish.”
The parish moved in fits and starts from its earliest days on the prairie of Iowa, surrounded by rich farmland and struggling farmers. A parish school tried to function, once for a stretch of seven years, then closed to open again for another six, before permanently shuttering. Five miles away, its offspring, St. Cecilia Parish and School, was where the influx of immigrants and migrating peoples were gathering in larger numbers as they worked and lived near Iowa State University and the newly developing city of Ames.
Over the decades, the little country church was slowly drained of parishioners, the result of many small town factors happening throughout Iowa, until the parish finally lost their last remaining permanent priest in 1987. At that point, the mother church of St. Cecilia’s, and later St. Thomas Aquinas Student Center, became a mission church dependent on its offspring for sacramental services.
Still, the faithful parishioners loved the country “feel and flavor” that had been formed in SS. Peter and Paul over the years, even with its lack of modern conveniences such as air conditioning and handicap accessibility. According to the head of the parish council, Chris Crutchfield, “We had to do something. One person would pass out every summer from the lack of air conditioning during Mass. We wanted to have more things like weddings and receptions, too. And we asked ourselves just how could our disabled get in the door?”
But numbers impacted the greater Gilbert community. In 1990, the town of Gilbert had only 800 residents, and most of those were Lutherans. Talk circulated that the parish might be clustered with St. Cecilia’s in Ames due to the shortage of priests. Sue and Mike Baumhover, parishioners that lived on an acreage north of Gilbert, remember the day they were asked to defend their church’s existence by the archdiocese.
“We were instructed as a parish to present a plan as to why our parish should remain open,” said Sue Baumhover. “We operate our own religious education program, have been fiscally responsible, and have an extremely active and God-centered church body.”
It wasn’t enough. They needed a priest, someone willing to commit to helping keep the doors open.
That’s when Father Ev Hemann from St. Thomas Aquinas Student Center in Ames stepped forward to help them.
“He boosted our spirits,” Crutchfield said. “He went to the archbishop and said he would take on the parish to keep it open. We had a hoedown during the transition. It was a big party and convinced us that we’ll be all right, that we are a parish that is alive. Everyone is involved and cares about what is going on here and with one another. It’s like a big family.”
“The proposal and Father Ev. stepping forward and saying he would be willing to have St. Thomas serve us is why we are still here today,” said Baumhover. “The grace of God was working in our favor!”
In 2016, SS. Peter and Paul Catholic Church celebrated its 100th anniversary with a renovation short of a miracle. After Easter 2016, the church closed and the parish members were welcomed by the people of St. Petri Lutheran Church in Story City, five miles to the north, to use their church building for weekly Mass. It was in God’s perfect timing that a population boom arrived in Ames, and at Iowa State University, over the last 10 years. Urban growth has moved north toward the little town of Gilbert where the town has seen an increase of over 200 new residents. More housing built to the north means more Catholics in the area, and this time it was the archdiocese that now encouraged the little parish to renovate itself.
“Twenty years ago, the parish was moving toward closing,” said Father Jon Seda, the current pastor, “and unlike many parishes that lose parishioners while out of their building, we have added new families these past months. We have no doubt we can fill the church from day one. Many people in our area want to belong to a smaller parish (we are at 140 households now) ‘where everybody knows your name.’ This project has been energizing to our parish and to me personally. I am really proud of what the Lord is doing in our parish. This has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have had as a priest.”
The new additions in phase one have been an elevator, an enlarged social space, a small gathering area on the west side of the church worship area, six additional pews and a bell for the new bell tower obtained from the Good Shepherd Church in Jewell no longer in operation. Also, two new handicap accessible restrooms were installed with improved front door access. The hope is that now more weddings and funerals of parishioners can be held at their own church.
Financially, the parish raised enough money to begin the project comfortably; raising triple the amount projected. But there were challenges along the way. Using a century-old church meant replacing costly electrical wiring, but better wiring meant air conditioning, at long last.
SS. Peter and Paul Church opened its doors again to receive its parish community on Christmas Eve with liturgies at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. Archbishop Jackels dedicated the new spaces on Jan. 15, and the parish held a breakfast afterward. Phase two of the project is anticipated to begin within the next 10 years.
But what exactly was the life-giving force that moved this once inconceivable project along? Baumhover has a ready answer. “It’s the people,” she said. “We have been so blessed by people willing to give of themselves, their time, talent and their treasure. They are without a doubt good stewards of the gifts they have been given.”
Archbishop Jackels (left) poses Jan. 15 with Father Jon Seda, pastor of SS. Peter & Paul in Gilbert before blessing a new addition to the church building. (Contributed photo)