175 years of Catholicism in Fort Madison


By Emmaline Jurgena
For The Catholic Messenger

Fort Madison par

Sacred Heart, Fort Madison
Sacred Heart, Fort Madison

ishioners are celebrating a historic milestone July 31 — 175 years of Catholicism.
Catholicism arrived in the southeastern Iowa town in 1840 with Father John Alleman. According to material obtained from diocesan archives, Fr. Alleman answered the call of Bishop John Mathias Loras of the Dubuque (Iowa) diocese for a German-speaking priest to minister to the German-speaking people of the area. Fr. Alleman, who spoke German, French and English, began serving at St. Joseph’s Parish, the first Catholic community in Fort Madison.
After outgrowing St. Joseph’s and the subsequent larger space built to accommodate the increasing number of Catholic families, Catholics built a second church, St. Mary’s, in Fort Madison in 1865. More than two decades later, in 1893, Sacred Heart Parish was built to accommodate the influx of new Catholics who came to town with the arrival of the Santa Fe Railroad. A Catholic school was also built. In 1915, a replica of the original St. Joseph’s was built; it still stands today as a reminder of the long history of Catholicism in the area.
More than a century after the establishment of Sacred Heart Parish, the neighborhood that St. Joseph’s served had begun to

St. Mary & St. Joseph, Fort Madison
St. Mary & St. Joseph, Fort Madison

change. Young families did not return to the neighborhood in the years following World War II, and the financial health of the parish stagnated due to the number of members who relied on fixed incomes and pensions. In 1996, Bishop William Franklin decided to merge St. Joseph’s Parish and St. Mary’s Parish, creating Ss. Mary & Joseph Parish.
After the merger of the two parishes, Ss. Mary & Joseph and Sacred Heart Parish continued to serve in harmony in Fort Madison, combining their parish offices and pastoral councils in 2004. In 2006 the pastoral council passed a vote consolidating the parishes, yet again. In 2008, this move was completed, creating Holy Family Parish, which is still serving the Catholics of Fort Madison today.
Deacon David Sallen, who serves as a planning committee chair for the anniversary celebration, said the group has been meeting for the past year to prepare. Several events have been held leading up to the event. Festivities kicked off with a eucharistic procession from Ss. Mary & Joseph Church to the replica of the original St. Joseph Church. This took place during the May 29 Corpus Christi celebration.
Events continued with a widely attended variety show, which Sallen described as “an evening of fun and song.” The committee has also created a two-part DVD that covers the history of Catholicism in Fort Madison and gives an in-depth look at the history of the stained glass in the three churches that served the town. Parishioners will receive a copy of the DVD as part of the anniversary celebration. In bulletins leading up to the celebration, snippets about other historical buildings with roots in the Catholic community have been featured, including the former Fort Madison hospital and its additions which the Sisters of St. Francis oversaw.
The July 31 event will begin with a Jubilee Mass at 3:30 p.m. at Ss. Mary & Joseph and celebrated by Bishop Martin Amos, followed by a reception at McAleer Hall. One wing of the hall will be dedicated to an exhibit that explores the history of Catholicism in Fort Madison and includes historical artifacts.
“This is really a corner of Iowa where Catholicism first began in this area … we’re looking forward to putting up something that people can go through and learn

Dcn. Sallen
Dcn. Sallen

about the history,” Deacon Sallen said.
He is most excited to display a cross made by Fr. Alleman. In addition to being an early steward of the faith in the area, the priest was an avid botanist who raised his own fruit trees. The cross was formed out of the wood from one of these original trees and will be on display in McAleer Hall. Parishioners will also have the chance to sample pears that can be traced back to Fr. Alleman’s original plantings.
Readers who think they may have a piece of history that could be displayed in Fort Madison are encouraged to call Holy Family Parish at (319) 372-2127.

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2 thoughts on “175 years of Catholicism in Fort Madison

  1. I’m very disappointed that the identity of the DVD’s creator has never been shared. That DVD was an 8-month project involving over 1200 hours of research and editing labor and was a free donation to the parish.

    1. If you would like us to update that part of the story please let us know to whom we should attribute the DVD’s creation.

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