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An exquisite Nativity window, just one of the treasures of St. Mary's, Remsen, Iowa

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It stands on the village green, a magnificent church towering above the houses that surround it, just like the cathedrals of Europe. But this isn't a quaint town in the Old World, but tiny Remsen, Iowa, where, amidst so much to be thankful for, Luxembourger, French, Alsatian, German, and Irish Catholic Pioneers built St. Mary's in the praise of God…

Embellishing our video frame are hand-carved wood images from St. Mary's Catholic Church, Remsen, Iowa — (from bottom, left) Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek; Jesus appearing to two Disciples at Emmaus; the Sacrifice of Abraham; (and top, center) an angel from the Altar of St. Joseph — and luminous stained glass: (from top, left) Joseph from the window of the Nativity; Christ in Majesty from the window of the Crowning of the Blessed Virgin; and Jesus and Mary from the window of The Holy Family; (top, bottom row) the four round transept clerestory stained glass windows. (Photos and Video © Crèchemania.com.)

 
St. Mary's steeple rises to the sky and is visible for miles — St. Mary's Catholic Church, Remsen, Iowa. (Photo © Crèchemania.com.) 
  
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I'm photographing in the Church of The Nativity, Sioux City, Iowa, where Pastor Gerald Feierfeil welcomes me and tells me about a large Nativity window at St. Mary's Catholic Church in nearby Remsen.

"You must include it in your Search of The Nativity," Father Jerry says. So I skip plans to bake pastries with my childhood friends Janet and Mary, and instead head North on Hwy 75.

In about 25 miles I'm driving through Le Mars, "Ice Cream Capital of the World," and then, taking a right on Hwy 3, I head East. Dark freshly-plowed fields border the road that winds through rolling hills for another five or so miles. Then I see it, a black dot against a blue sky: St. Mary's steeple.

"When I was little," says Deacon Richard J. Roder, "I felt like the steeple of St. Mary's Church was the visible part of the axis on which the world spun. Even though I have now seen a considerable part of that world, sometimes I still feel that way."

Rick, who greets me in front of St. Mary's as I'm rolling my camera case with one hand and carrying my heavy pneumatic tripod with the other, says, "Father Feirfeil sent you? Father Jerry is a good man, a good friend of mine. He's best friends with a priest whom our family considers our uncle, Fr. Paul Eisele."

Isn't it a small world.

Rick is about to give me a tour of the church — and how lucky am I, because he is the author of We Are Called: A History of St. Mary's Parish, Remsen, Iowa, a 256-page book published on the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the dedication of St. Mary's Church in 2004.

Rick may be an NCAA editor (online testing for their officials, communications, payroll, game assigning), but it becomes obvious as he lovingly speaks about his church that his world still revolves around St. Mary's.

"We were very fortunate that Father Schulte, in 1902, rejected a couple of plans that he considered inferior," Rick says, as he picks up my tripod. "He hired Guido Beck of Dubuque, Iowa, one of the most sought-after architects in the Midwest, who designed a masterpiece in the Neo-Gothic style.

"When they built this church the parish consisted of about 300 families — we now have 700 — so they were anticipating growth. But all that financial weight falling on the shoulders of those 300 families was tough. Some families took out 20-year loans to help pay the 68,000 church cost (in 1904 dollars). But they knew that population increase was coming.

"St. Mary's was built when they were renovating St. Mary's Church in Sioux City into a big cathedral. The Cathedral of The Epiphany was dedicated on September 8, 1904, and St. Mary's on September 9. Most of the bishops and priests who attended the Sioux City dedication came here on the train for the dedication of St. Mary's. What a marvelous ceremony it must have been! The church was dedicated not by the Bishop of Sioux City, Philip Garrigan, but by the only Luxembourg-born priest to become a bishop in the U.S., Jacob Schwebach.

"When I was little, I remember the procession after mass, the sound of footsteps on the tile floor. We had a monsignor who was bigger-than-life, a regal, powerful figure. I remember watching him, hearing the thunder of his steps on the ground, the majesty of him and his vestments. We've always had beautiful, traditional vestments that we still use, some over one-hundred-years-old.

"I grew up taking for granted, not understanding, what we have in St. Mary's. That was part of the reason I returned. I was brought up in this church, but left for about ten years when I worked as an umpire in minor league baseball. When the church turned 100-years-old, I undertook a history of the parish — and wanted to learn everything."

 
Deacon Rick Roder lighting the Sanctuary Lamp — St. Mary's Catholic Church, Remsen, Iowa. 
  
Spoken like a true student of history, in which Rick holds a Bachelor of Arts.

St. Mary's clock is striking eleven, and Rick looks up at the steeple towering high above us.

"That's a 60,000-thousand-dollar ring, by the way. We just renovated the bell and clock workings. And our locals, who had done it three times before and knew what to do, did the clock faces. One of the men was there for the original to-the-ground refurbishment."

Seeing my puzzled look, Rick explains: "They remove the faces — they're about six-and-a-half feet round — lower them down using tractors and pulleys, restore them, and place them back.

"We were afraid we would have to immobilize the bells, because their swinging normally affects the structural integrity of the steeple. But when our expert climbed to the top and saw how strongly the tower was built he said, 'Those bells are going to swing; we are not immobilizing those bells!'

"He was so excited, because so many churches have had to immobilize their bells: the weight of a swinging bell is like swinging a compact car — not good for the steeple's structural integrity. But our expert was determined not to shut these bells down, and we were able to reinforce the steeple.

"When I climbed up, I realized that those two calling angels, gifts of the original pastor, are in need of restoration. And all that copper — see how one of those large finials is bent? — needs to be refurbished.

"So we're providing for the next generation as those before us did for us. For example, all the slate has to be replaced, but we want the roof to look the same. So we're looking at modern slate, that takes in less moisture, and cracks less.

"We had a parishioner, Ted Nothem, who took care of the roof for about forty years. He used to come out — you see those triangles just below the cross? — he used to crawl out there, throw a rope around, and that was the first step of his ladder. He'd throw the rope around again, a bit higher, and that was his second rung.

"He'd climb all the way to the top with bait and tackle. He had a bosun's chair, and would lower himself and work on the roof. When he was 80-years-old and in a nursing home, they had to cut his rope to pieces so he wouldn't be tempted to go up again all by himself!

Shall we go inside?"

 
Pointed arches, groined vaults, and slender columns channel weight to the ground, allowing walls to be pierced by tall stained glass windows that fill the nave with light — St. Mary's Catholic Church, Remsen, iowa. (Photo © Crèchemania.com.) 
  

We walk through the center door that's topped by a triangle of red brickwork, and find ourselves in a long, high nave. On either side slender columns — crowned by blue capitals trimmed in gold — support groin vaults and pointed arches that soar high above the floor.

With this load-bearing efficiency, walls can be pierced by large, double Gothic windows that fill the church with ethereal light filtered through marvelous stained glass (see image, above). The height and light lift the spirit, and it's not unusual for a visitor to St. Mary's to feel in touch with the transcendent.

"I was telling the kids one day," Rick says, "that all these Gothic windows and arches point up, as a prayer.

"Our south windows get a lot of light, but when the sun gets far North in the summer, then early in the morning some of these North windows really light up. Sometimes you can come in here and see colors you never noticed before from all the sun spilling through.

"Our windows were created by the R. T. Giles art glass studio in St. Paul, Minnesota. There are over 2,000 square feet of stained glass, in 77 windows. We had an expert, Fr. Brian Hughes, come through who said that the Giles studio had the best craftsmen for art glass in the United States. We're doing a restoration of our windows, piece-by-piece, and we're giving ourselves about 100 years! We're now working on all these vent windows that are leaking, at about $10,000 a piece. Then we'll start working with the bigger windows above."

 
The soaring window of The Nativity by the R. T. Giles art glass studio, St. Paul, Minnesota — St. Mary's Catholic Church, Remsen, Iowa. (Photo © Crèchemania.com.) 
  
Rick stops at the North Transept, in front of the window of The Nativity (see image, at left). It's divided into two parts by wooden tracery, and has two square panels at the bottom that open for ventilation. They're embellished by gold, white, green, and blue geometric designs and the words, Geburt Jesu (German, for The Birth of Christ.)

At the top, trefoils and quatrefoils enclose crenelated designs and the initials, in red, I H S (Iesous Christos Soter), Greek, for Jesus Christ Savior.

The Nativity is depicted in six central panels, set in a wooden stable. To the right, the Blessed Virgin, clad in royal blue, kneels, arms joined in prayer in front of the Newborn Child shown on the left side of the window, lying on a white cloth just beneath the manger.

St. Joseph, shielding a candle flame from the wind, stands to the left, and to the right, under an arch, three shepherds rejoice with pipes and horn (see bottom of page for a larger, detailed, image).

"My favorite windows are The Nativity and the Garden of Gethsemane," Rick says, "and I'll tell you the relationship between the two: do you see that little branch jutting into The Nativity window at bottom right? Fr. Hughes told me that the craftsman who did this window, probably also did the Garden of Gethsemane one, which also has a similar branch. He explained that sometimes craftsmen would put their own visual signature on their work, in this case, this branch."

Speaking of visual clues, just below this branch, set on the tile floor, a cross symbolizes Christ's Passion.

"The thing I love about The Nativity," Rick says, "is that Christ does not look like a nine-year old child, but an infant, born naked into the world — just like we are. There's so much humanity as well as divinity in this picture. You have shepherds with their musical instruments barely able to contain their excitement; and on the left you have your animals, and St. Joseph, protector of Jesus and Mary, who appears as a young, plain, simple girl. What a beautiful depiction.

"Our four transept windows are dedicated to Mary: The Crowning of Mary, The Holy Family, The Nativity, and Our Lady of Lourdes."

Set between The Nativity and Our Lady of Lourdes windows is a confessional made of carved wood. "All our woodwork is hand-crafted," Rick says. "This and the confessional on the other side we believe came at different times, as you can see from the subtle differences between them. We think we had one to begin with, because there was only one pastor. When a second pastor came, there was need for another confessional."

To the right of the confessional, there's a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and higher on the wall The Infant of Prague.

Nearby, another statue is set on a wooden pedestal, a candle and a vase of flowers by its side. Carved on the base of the statue are the words, in Latin, MARIA MATER JESU (Mary, Mother of Jesus,) and CONSOLATRIX AFFLICTORUM (Comforter of the Afflicted).

"This is Our Lady of Luxembourg," Rick says. "This statue was imported from Luxembourg in 1939, when the Nazis had just taken over the Grand Duchy. The statue is about 200-250-years-old, has been at St. Mary's for 75 years, and was in a church in Luxembourg for 150 years before that."

"Our Lady of Luxembourg wears one of the eight dresses, whose colors conform to the liturgical season. The words AVE MARIS STELLA, (Hail Star of the Sea) appear in gold embroidery. For about three to four weeks every summer, we leave the dress off, so people can see the garments of the original statue. An expert told us this is a very special statue: Luxembourg complexion is dark and hair is curly, that's why he said Our Lady has wavy, black hair, with a dark complexion.

"This is a very special statue to me. I have researched all 16 in the United States, and written a book, Veneration of Our Lady of Luxembourg in the United States] that people can use as a guide in visiting all of Our Lady statues in the country."

The Veneration of Our Lady of Luxembourg, Rick writes in his foreword, "…Is perhaps the first attempt to identify all places in the United States where people seek the intercession of Our Lady of Luxembourg, as represented by statues depicting the Blessed Mother under her title, 'Comforter of the Afflicted.'

"These statues, showing the particular devotion of Luxembourgers to Our lady of Consolation, are easily identifiable by their beautiful garments — usually very ornate — and a golden heart and key hanging from Mary's arm."

The veneration of Our Lady at Notre-Dame de Luxembourg dates from 1624. A 1639 book contains miracles attributed to Our Lady of Luxembourg, who, in 1666 was chosen Patron Saint of the City of Luxembourg. Our Lady of Luxembourgh i the object of fervent prayer and veneration by Luxembourgers world-wide.

 
The veneration of Our Lady Comforter of the Afflicted dates to 1624 — Our Lady of Luxembroug, St. Mary's Catholic Church, Remsen, Iowa. (Photo © Crèchemania.com.) 
  
"Our ethnicity in Remsen is primarily Louxembourger," Rick says. "Every year we have groups visiting from Luxembourg, and last year I saw as man standing by Our Lady of Luxembourg, crying. I said, 'Are you O.K.?' He said that he was born in the U.S., had moved back to Luxembourg, and was awed by the faith of the people who built this church. 'I know how poor they were,' he said. 'My parents emigrated in the early 1900s, and I know what they went through. And for them, and others like them, to have built this church…'

"This is the third church on this site. They were all built on this very spot. The first was finished in late 1884. I did a history of the diocese as well, and we had never realized that there were four Catholic Churches that were destroyed in 1885, on the same night. A storm developed southwest of Le Mars, in a rural parish called Ellendale, and demolished their church. Coming to Le Mars, it demolished the first St. James Church, and at St. Joseph's Church, which was being finished, it blew out the stained glass and took out the steeple — but the church stood. Then it came to Remsen, tearing down our less-than-a-year-old wooden-frame church. It then went to Marcus, and took out a Lutheran church. Finally, the storm phased out by Cherokee. We never realized that the same storm wiped out a whole corridor of churches.

"The only thing that came out of the original church in Remsen was the bell, which is here. From the second church, we've got another bell, and the 1896 organ. It was built in Milwaukee, and it's a tubular pneumatic marvel. We did about a sixty thousand dollar renovation in 2000, and we have organists from all over coming to play it. Simon, our young organist, truly makes it sing."

Rick is now standing in front of the main altar, which is centered under the three arches of the apse. "It's all hand-carved. Just look at all the special touches: this is the fleur-de-lis, a Marian symbol; all the cherubic little angels, which some of our children have counted, and say there are at least 39, including the two angels holding up that arch.

"These four angels right above the tabernacle are not original, and Peter and Paul are on the wrong side. Father Hughes told us they should be placed as they are at the Cathedral of Peter and Paul, in Rome. We looked it up, and sure enough, Peter's on the left, Paul on the right — so they are on the wrong side. As soon as I can get enough guys, we'll switch them.

Rick approaches the altar, touches the Tabernacle crucifix, which is the original one , and, as if by a miracle, a monstrance appears (run your mouse over the image at left to see it.) "For the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, they crafted a turntable, and there's a monstrance, a beautiful piece, on the other side of the Tabernacle crucifix.

"There are 13 images of the Blessed Virgin in the church, and when the monstrance is revealed, there are 14, because Mary is found at its center top."

 
The Tabernacle of St. Mary's revolves to reveal the Monstrance that holds the Consecrated Eucharistic Host. (Mouseover the image above to see the monstrance, allowing a moment for the image to draw on your page. Photo © Crèchemania.com.) 
Rick waits for me to take a photo of the monstrance — whose ornamental, gilded, decorative motifs support small platforms holding, besides that of the Virgin, statues of Sts. Peter and Paul and two angels — and then, with a quick turn of the invisible turntable the Crucifix set with alabaster comes back into view.

To the left of the altar table is the ambo, and I wonder: was it once elevated?

"Yes," Rick says, "originally, the ambo was on this pillar, but some of our older lectors had difficulty climbing its many steps. We thought more people will see the reader if the ambo were closer to the center of the church — about 80 more people, to be exact: we sat on all the obstructed-view seats and counted.

"We worked with very traditional restoration specialists, and the only way they talked us into lowering the ambo was using its ornate support column as the base of the statue of Our Lady of Luxembourg, which had been next to the Pietá. The new ambo base allowed us to elevate Our Lady of Luxenbourg, giving it its own special place. It worked out quite well. We modeled our efforts after the Cathedral in Sioux City, which has the ambo growing out of the sanctuary as well.

"See this ambo leaf border? It's our only computer-generated design in the church. The artist wanted to tie the ambo in with the altar, so he copied the scrollwork on the altar and created this decorative piece for the ambo.

"There's another little treat over here: we used the old communion rails to craft the new Altar Table, and we tried to save all the Gothic arches and use them for the presider's chair, and the new Baptismal Font and credence table.

"Here, by the altar of St. Joseph, is a blessing from the Holy Father, when our Parish turned 125 years old last year."

Framed in gold, in a flowing calligraphic script, "The Holy Father Benedict XVI cordially imparts... Apostolic Blessing… and invokes an abundance of heavenly favours and the continued protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary…" to the Pastor and Faithful.

Rick kneels in front of the altar of St. Joseph, unlatches two metal hook-and-eye fasteners on its side, and pulls gently. Suddenly, the bottom front panel of the altar — with its gilded columns and carved angel holding an ITE AD JOSEPH (Come to Joseph) scroll — opens with a loud creak to reveal a statue of the Entombed Jesus.

I'm stunned.

  
In Jesus Wird Zum tode Verurtheilt, (German for Jesus Is Condemned to Death), the First Station of The Cross, Jesus is led away as Pilate, on his throne, washes his hands — 1916 Tyrolean hand-carved and painted wood, St. Mary's Catholic Church, Remsen, Iowa. (Photo © Crèchemania.com.)  
   
In his book We Are Called: A History of St. Mary's Parish, Remsen, Iowa, Rick relates how a couple of visitors dropped to their knees upon this sight. I remain upright, but bring my hand to my forehand and begin crossing myself, as I would do when approaching an icon in the Greek Orthodox Church.

Is it the jarring contrast of the beautiful altar above, and the dark, linen-lined "tomb" below, or the peaceful statue of the Entombed Jesus that invites contemplation?

My mouth is still open in wonder as Rick says, "This altar is only open for about 24 hours a year: we finish the Good Friday Liturgy by opening it and saying a prayer. After Father says the final prayer of the Liturgy, we exit in silence, and it stays open until noon on Holy Saturday.

"We hold morning prayer here on Holy Saturday, and for me it's an important prayer, because it helps brings the Easter Triduum to life. We can gather around the Body of Christ, Who's in the netherworld saving those who have died. We place a lot of candles here, gather around the statue and say our prayers."

It's time for me to start my work, and as I open my camera case and and take out my my telephoto Rick says, "Nice lens! Would it be possible to take photos of the Stations of the Cross?"

Normally, since I'm in search of The Nativity, I don't photograph The Stations, but am happy to do so for Rick and St. Mary's. Besides, it's fun to talk to Rick about photography, because he has an eye for it, as he demonstrates when he crouches down to suggest an angle of view for one of The Stations of The Cross. As well, it isn't every day I run into a fellow English major who seems to love his church even more than I love — if such a thing is possible! — photographing it.

"I would love some detail shots of the Stations of the Cross," Rick says. "Carving fascinates me. Isn't the detail work just unbelievable? If you get real close, you see the veins in Jesus' hand. And look at Veronica's left foot — do you see anything wrong? It has the big toe on the wrong side!"

I suggest that it could well be the artist's way of saying there's no perfection but the Lord's?

"We had the paint restored in the 90s to as close as we could come to what was there originally. So the Stations of the Cross now look as they did when they came in 1916 when they were hand-carved in Tyrolean Austria, now Ortisei, Italy. The Stations of The Cross are probably the most valuable art in the church. They are all a single piece of hand-carved wood, and labeled in German, which was a no-no in 1904 — you used Latin or nothing."

If I lived here, I tell Rick, I know I couldn't stop taking photos.

  
A mother's anguish is vividly portrayed in the face of The Blessed Virgin in this detail of the hand-carved-and-painted Jesus Wird In Das Grab Gelegt (Jesus Is Laid In the Tomb) Fourteenth Station of the Cross — St. Mary's Catholic Church, Remsen, Iowa. (Photo © Crèchemania.com.)  
   
"i've taken eight million pictures," Rick says. "I'm not much of a photographer, and only have a small digital camera. One day I was here and in the King David window… See his gold crown and halo? The sun was exactly behind them, shining straight down. I don't know what to do with a camera, so I pointed it directly in line with the light, and got an incredible picture.

"Shall we visit the Grotto?"

Before stepping outside into the bright sun, Ricks pauses for a moment in the Narthex, in front of a small plaque. "This is where we'd like to place a statue of Saint Francis that we'd like to commission. We had the Sisters of St. Francis here for 112 years, and the statue of St. Francis, for me, would represent their sacrifice. We couldn't have built this place without the Sisters. We had as many as 27 Franciscan sisters here at one time, and all the education was free. All those nuns received were canned goods. Twenty-seven Sisters gave their free labor to the schools. This place was built on the backs of the Franciscan Nuns. So we need to have something more than this plaque to honor them."

As we step outside the bells are ringing the Angelus, and I hold up my digital recorder so I can capture it for my video.

"I have a recording on my cell phone," Rick says, "so I can pray the Angelus three times a day, even if I'm not here."

As we approach the Grotto, the sound of the bells mingles with that of children playing.

"The Grotto was built by a family whose little girl's eyesight was miraculously cured after she was submerged at Lourdes," Rick says. "And I try to let people know: ask for what you think can't happen; look at this Grotto, and ask. For that family's prayer was answered."

A little girl with long blond hair comes running towards us and St. Mary's Tour Guide becomes, "Daddy!" as Rick's young daughter — who attends St. Mary's School and is enjoying a sunny recess — jumps into his arms.

For the next five hours I'm alone with my camera in St. Mary's, surrounded by so much beauty — and the spirit of those who believed, had so much to be thankful for, and built this magnificent church amidst Iowa's fertile fields in the praise of God.

AYX

You'll love visiting St. Mary's in Remsen, iowa, and Deacon Rick Roder would be happy to give you a tour (rroder@midlands.net or 712.786.2015). St. Mary's Catholic Church, 121 East 4th Street, Remsen, IA 51050; Rectory/Office: 712.786.1437. I'll be going back myself: I would like to meet the Pastor, Fr. Bill McCarthy, and visit St. Mary's again. Besides, Rick tells me the best shots of the church are from the top of the grain elevator or the Remsen water tower. For a copy of We Are Called: A History of St. Mary's Parish, Remsen, Iowa contact St. Mary's or Rick Roder (rroder@midlands.net). For a copy of Veneration of Our Lady of Luxembourg In the United States contact Rick.

 
Detail of The Nativity window (sans central post), St. Mary's Catholic Church, Remsen, Iowa. (Photo © Crèchemania.com). 
  

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