When RAGBRAI comes to town: Parishes provide food, lodging to bicyclists


By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

Was he being foolish? That was the question Father Bill Hubmann, C.PP.S., asked himself when he agreed to allow RAGBRAI participants to spend the night at St. Mary Parish in Centerville. For the first time in 30 years, the community would serve as an overnight stop for the 8,500 registered and 11,500 unregistered bicyclists participating in the annual week-long ride across Iowa.

Fr. Bill Hubmann, C.PP.S RAGBRAI participants park their bicycles outside St. Mary Parish in Centerville July 27. This year’s RAGBRAI route passed through southern Iowa, with three overnight stops in the Diocese of Davenport. Parishes offered camping space and/or food to riders.
Fr. Bill Hubmann, C.PP.S
RAGBRAI participants park their bicycles outside St. Mary Parish in Centerville July 27. This year’s RAGBRAI route passed through southern Iowa, with three overnight stops in the Diocese of Davenport. Parishes offered camping space and/or food to riders.

But he pushed his fears of potentially rowdy crowds aside. “It was going to be an adventure,” he decided. “It was like (the corporal works of mercy): feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty and providing shelter to the homeless.”

Centerville was among several diocesan parishes to open its doors to riders during this year’s ride in late July. Each year the route changes, and the 2016 ride included overnight stops in Centerville, Ottumwa and Washington before concluding in Muscatine.


Rest for the weary

RAGBRAI riders entered Centerville city limits as early as 9 a.m. on July 27, with others finishing the day’s route around suppertime. Riders took full advantage of Cen­terville-St. Mary’s sizeable lot, which covers about two city blocks. It was large enough for nearly 100 tents during RAGBRAI. Addi­tionally, 50 riders stayed in the rectory. “The first thing they wanted to do was lay down,” Fr. Hubmann said. “They didn’t ask for anything but a place to stay and didn’t cause any trouble.”

The Knights of Columbus hosted a turkey and noodle dinner with homemade pies for dessert, which served just shy of 500 bicyclists. Dinner proceeds went to help fund the ministries of Centerville’s Knights of Columbus and the Ladies of St. Mary’s.

Achin’ Knees and memories

The following day, riders wheeled into Ottumwa, home to St. Patrick and St. Mary of the Visitation parishes. St. Patrick Parish wasn’t planning on hosting campers. Groups called the church before the start of RAGBRAI to ask about lodging but chose to stay elsewhere because they needed more amenities than St. Pat’s could provide, according to pastor Father Patrick Hilgendorf. The day before the bicyclists arrived, he received a call from a group from Ankeny, the “Achin’ Knees.” Two of the group’s 25 members were former St. Pat’s parishioners who had moved away and were desperate for a place to camp. They didn’t care about the lack of on-site showers. “We were very happy to help them out,” Fr. Hilgendorf said. “They were really a great group and I enjoyed them.” He felt bad when he learned they didn’t have a place to stay at the Washington stop the next day, so he worked with his friend Father Troy Richmond, a RAGBRAI volunteer and former pastor of the Washington parish, to help them find a spot. Fr. Hilgendorf be­lieves the hospitality shown to the group helped them to see Catholics in a more positive light.

Across town, St. Mary’s offered riders a choice between a spaghetti dinner and a Filipino-inspired offering of pork adobo, rice and egg rolls. Lisa Canny, who with husband Luke cooked the spaghetti, said the meal had a special significance for the parish. Proceeds from the spaghetti portion of the dinner helped establish a scholarship fund in memory of Mike and Mary Ryan – longtime lay leaders who were killed in a head-on collision in March. “The scholarship is a good way to keep their memory going,” Lisa Canny said.

The Filipino dinner served to build awareness of the Filipino presence in the parish, which is known more for its Latino influence. “It’s multicultural awareness,” Canny said. “It’s not just Hispanics here. We want to recognize (Filipino) culture also.”

Ottumwa Knights of Columbus and Catholic Daughters — which include members of both parishes — also provided a meal for riders.

It’s not so much the heat: it’s the stupidity

That message appeared on a semi-tractor trailer parked in the lot of St. James Parish and School in Washington, which hosted bicyclists overnight July 29. The semi carried bicyclists’ tents and other belongings. Parishioners also offered riders two types of cuisine to reflect the parish’s multicultural makeup: a traditional ham dinner or steak tacos (tacos de res) or a vegetarian quinoa dish. About 2,200 meals were served, with proceeds benefitting the St. James School scholarship fund.

The pastor, Father Bernie Weir, enjoyed getting to know some of the campers. He noticed most were not from Iowa. They said “If you are a biker you do RAGBRAI. There is nothing in the world like this,” Fr. Weir recalled. “It was fun to hear that; we kind of take it for granted that people show up in your town every 10 years and you have fun.”

Feeding bicyclists and offering camping space to 1,600 people required the assistance of about 100 parish volunteers. Fr. Weir said, “I just think it’s really important that as a church we show hospitality and show support for the town and its activities. It is also a form of evangelization to have people on property and have them know we are open and welcoming to everyone.”

The church was open to anyone who wanted to go inside and pray, and many Catholics did so, Fr. Weir said. In hindsight, he would have planned a Mass for the riders that evening. It’s something he intends to do next time RAGBRAI comes through town.

Ready to head for home

Bicyclists finished their adventure in Muscatine, symbolically dipping their tires in the Mississippi River to officially end their ride. Fr. Richmond, pastor of Ss. Mary & Mathias Parish, was among the community volunteers helping direct riders along the route. He offered the parish school’s lot to riders, but ultimately there was no need. Riders “generally go home as soon as they dip the tire,” Fr. Richmond said. “I wish we could have had the excitement of some of the other towns, but that’s part of being along the Mississippi.”

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