The first time some former St. Mary’s parishioners were in the church since it closed in May 2010, was Saturday, May 16. They came before the 4 p.m. information session and silently walked around inside. Others who experienced the building for the first time were in awe of its beauty.
“I was so happy to walk in and see how clean everything was,” remarked Ruth Clancy, a former parishioner who came at 2:45 to get a good seat. “I was so glad to see that the stations, the windows and the mural above the altar are still there and will be kept.”
Friends of St. Mary’s, the not-for-profit 501(c)(3) corporation formed to preserve this vital cornerstone of Dubuque history, partnered with Old House Enthusiasts to co-host this introduction to Steeple Square — the new name for the St. Mary’s block. The steeple, 252 feet high, has been a commanding presence on the Dubuque skyline since 1867.
The vision for the project is stated on the sign near the front door:
“Steeple Square will serve as a collaborative, multi-tenant, inclusive center providing an attractive hub for social life and community support while preserving its historic fabric and features. The repurposed campus will be an agent for positive change and a catalyst for restoring lives, citizen engagement, neighborhood empowerment and community vibrancy.”
Over 200 people attended the Saturday presentations. The opening video — Reaching the Heavens — produced by Loras College productions, detailed the history, art and architecture of the historic church. This video will be posted on the Steeple Square Facebook page.
Duane Hagerty, the historic preservation consultant who grew up in the Bankston area, spent the last four years working on the project. “It is really exciting to see that many people share the passion that I’ve developed over the years,” he said enthusiastically. “It is contagious.”
He explained that a comprehensive assessment of everything in the church building was done by architects, window experts, etc. They were very impressed by the quality and condition of the church built in the 1860s for $97,000.
Architect Jeff Morton who wrote the historic structure report for every corner of the building, showed slides picturing the condition of the steeple. There were rumors that the steeple was unsafe, so money was raised to remove the bird droppings so an evaluation could be made.
The audience was enthralled with the photos taken at different heights inside the bell tower and steeple showing what needs to be corrected and how they plan to do it. It was a virtual tour without having to climb the steep ladders.
“The building looks like it’s in great shape, but the closer you get to it, the tougher it looks on the outside,” Morton said.
John Gronen, of Gronen properties is key in helping the planning process move forward. He is amazed at the emotion and connection to the building expressed by people. A man from out of town told him — “If your community figures out how to save this historic building, it’s going to speak volumes about what your community thinks of itself, and if you don’t save it, it’s also going to speak volumes.”
Gronen described the master plan created for the entire block and invited people to look at the site plans displayed. He said the Friends of St. Mary’s and others held many meetings to start to dream and vision with the community as to how the buildings could be repurposed, along with a budget to sustain them. Feedback and ideas are still welcome.
Plans call for the upper church to be used as an event center, hosting art and musical events, receptions, etc. This could also bring in revenue.
A large part of the basement is still dirt floor. This will be dug out to increase the floor to ceiling height so it could serve educational programs or childcare. Northeast Iowa Community College is interested in beginning a culinary program in a planned commercial kitchen. This could cater events held upstairs.
Historic tax credits have been reserved for partial funding to convert the Jackson Street School into 12 apartments. Construction may begin in the fall or next spring.
“We have been in the quiet phase of our fund raising campaign which has gone on for almost a year and we’re going to be announcing the results of that in the near future,” Gronen said. Steeple restoration will start later this summer. Two stained glass windows will also be removed, cleaned and frames painted within the next few weeks.
An informal reception preceding the musical program began at 6 p.m. Restoration of the 1870 Hook pipe organ is planned. The concert by area organists displayed the brilliant sounds of this historic instrument.
Father John Haugen, from St. Elizabeth Pastorate in the Epworth area was the first to play. He began playing the organ in sixth grade and continues to share his expertise.
Roy Carroll, a professor of music from Loras College followed with a variety of pieces showing the tonal colors of the organ.
The acoustics of the church are ideal for musical events. Cadenza, the chamber choir of the Dubuque Chorale directed by Bob Demaree, also sang.
The evening concluded with a lively organ toccata by Dubuque Franciscan Sister Mary Arnold Staudt, OSF, current organist at Mount St. Francis, retired from teaching at Briar Cliff University.
Ruth Clancy stayed for everything on Saturday. “Now I am really excited and hopeful,” she exclaimed. “I can see where the plans are going and it will be good for everyone.”