History and fun at cathedral ‘mansion’

Middle school students at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport participate in a Mystery Mansion event Oct. 27.

By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — Treasure maps, imagination, old houses and games from the experiences of Father Thom Hennen’s childhood and young adulthood led to the idea of a “Mystery Mansion” for middle school youths at Sacred Heart Cathedral. Father Hennen, the cathedral’s pastor and rector, hosted the event Oct. 27 with 30 youths attending.

“This really goes back to my own childhood and young adolescence, reading things like C.S. Lewis’ ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,’ and imagining exploring an old house to discover new worlds. Or watching ‘Goonies’ and always wanting to come upon a treasure map and having to follow a series of clues and overcome challenges to get the treasure,” he said. “I’m sure it was also partially influenced by my background and interest in strategy board games, role-playing games and something I did at a game convention I went to a few years ago called ‘True Dungeon.’ It was basically a series of puzzles, clues and games, like a big escape room experience. So it was always something I wanted to do as a young person, but really, the immediate inspiration was the rectory itself.  It’s just such a cool, old house. As soon as I moved in, I thought, ‘We need to do something with this.’”

Father Hennen teamed up with Matthew and Megan Cox, Susan Stanforth and a host of volunteers to organize the Mystery Mansion. Matthew Cox said Father Hennen wanted to give the youths a tour of the rectory, but also integrate some fun and challenges. “Father Thom also had just finished reading up on the history of the cathedral and rectory and that sparked the idea of creating a journal from Father (James) Davis, the first pastor to reside in the rectory.”

Walking through the front door, students discovered the “skeleton” of Father Davis (the future Bishop Davis) with a bag at his feet containing his personal prayer journal (not real), a Bible, and a black light flashlight and carpentry level. The prayer journal led students to Bible verses to get clues about where to go next. “Each room had a different puzzle or game, culminating in the finding of a key that opened a treasure chest that contained a small bag for each of them with their own prayer journal and ‘spy’ pen,” Father Hennen said.


Matthew Cox said the Father Davis prayer journal “provided clues and verses from Scripture to lead the kids through a series of puzzles and physical challenges.” For example, in one of the rooms, the youths read a passage about darkness and then the lights went out. They used a UV flashlight, which revealed arrows pointing to the next clue. One of the physical challenges involved getting through a spider web tunnel made of yarn to proceed to the next room.

The whole adventure took about 25-30 minutes for a group of five to seven youths. “We could have two groups going through at a time (first floor and second floor) with two to three adult volunteers running the different challenges on each floor. Those waiting to go through or those who had gone through already (sworn to secrecy) were able to hang out in the grand hall at the church for food and games,” Father Hennen said. The turnout “was outstanding.”

With help from adult volunteers, Father Hennen hopes to host this event annually. “We have also talked about doing a version of this for adults, too, and maybe auctioning it off at the All Saints Catholic School Gala or the Cathedral Red Dinner or both,” he said.

The rectory is “definitely too big and too nice a house for me to enjoy all by myself. I don’t need or take up much personal space. We may in the future have a retired priest interested in living there again and I always want to have a place for a seminarian for a summer or mid-year internship if needed. But other than events like this, I don’t use much of the first floor at all.”

Some other ideas for the rectory would be to host new member brunches or wine and cheese events with a few families at a time “to get to know them better,” he said.

“The kids seemed to love it. They were all smiles as they were leaving,” Matthew Cox said. “We had an amazing group of volunteers that helped make this a success.”

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