Iowa Catholic history: lessons from an old magazine


How much do you know about the history of Catholicism in Iowa? That question popped into my mind when I opened a fat envelope from my friend, Ken Donnelly.

Ken taught civics and history at high schools in Illinois and Iowa for more than 30 years. Even though he retired a few years back, he remains enthusiastic about the history of his state and his Church. He’s a proud Iowa Irish Catholic and a graduate of Iowa City Regina High School. Go Regals.

In the envelope was an old issue of The Palimpsest, a popular publication of the State Historical Society of Iowa. It is dated August 1953, nearly 70 years ago. What intrigued me was the fact that the entire issue was devoted to “Iowa’s Early Catholic History.”

Imagine that — a state publication that celebrated the contributions Catholics made to the history of Iowa! Frankly, I was both pleased and surprised. No other state publication has ever taken notice of our contributions to state history.


Ken had used the issue to write a Regina term paper about the history of the Catholic Church in Iowa City. Although he didn’t indicate his grade, I’d give him an “A” — just for saving this old issue of the magazine!

Ken’s gift also reminded me of the important contributions that Catholics have made to the history of our state. Just think of all the Catholic schools, hospitals and churches that dot the Iowa landscape.

Iowa Catholics served in elected office and in classrooms across the state. They’ve been judges in our courts and soldiers during wartime. They’ve been farmers, doctors, nurses, firefighters and much more. We’re a bright thread woven into the fabric of Iowa civics and culture.

The issue reminded me of recent books on Iowa Catholicism that merit more attention. Of note are “Seasons of Growth” (1981) by the late Sister Madeleine M. Schmidt, CHM, a still useful history of the Diocese of Davenport, and “A Great and Lasting Beginning” (2006) by Father George William McDaniel, an award-winning history of St. Ambrose University in Davenport.

Iowa’s other dioceses — Dubuque, Des Moines and Sioux City — also have received historical attention. For Dubuque, seek out “Seed/Harvest” (1987, 2012) compiled by Sister Mary Kevin Gallagher, BVM. Des Moines was blessed recently by Father Steven M. Avella’s “The Catholic Church in Southwest Iowa” (2018). And Richard J. Roder produced “Frontiers of Faith” (2001), a hefty, informative history of the Diocese of Sioux City.

In citing these few books, I don’t want to slight the substantial work that has been done by archivists and historians at Iowa’s Catholic colleges and provincial centers. The Center for Dubuque History at Loras College and the Archives of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary are just two examples of important institutions that are preserving our Catholic heritage.

I am grateful, therefore, that Ken sent me that old issue of The Palimpsest. It calls for all of us to celebrate the faith and culture that are so much a part of our lives. That’s an important truth as another year of illness keeps some of us from celebrating worship together.
(Timothy Walch is a lay director of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville and a member of the Board of Directors of The Catholic Messenger.)

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2 thoughts on “Iowa Catholic history: lessons from an old magazine

  1. Thank you for the history that includes Seasons of Growth by our CHM S. Madeleine M Schmidt.
    The Catholic Messenger continues to be an excellent publication, even weekly!

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