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Tharsella Pins says a tearful goodbye to St. Mary's in Dubuque, Iowa

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A synagogue is thinking of selling its precious stained-glass windows to keep its doors open; a 100-year-old parishioner mourns the closing of her beloved church; and an amateur photographer sends me a letter describing how even a closed church can once again become, "a cherished and often photographed" treasure…

The unmistakeable F. X. Zettler Royal Bavarian Art Institute touch is evident in this detail of the superb Nativity stained glass window, St. Mary's Catholic Church, Dubuque, Iowa. (Photo courtesy the Catholic Archdiocese of Dubuque.)

This magnificent F. X. Zettler stained glass window, St. Mary's Catholic Church, Dubuque, Iowa, depicts in three panels the Adoration of the Magi, The Nativity, and the Adoration of the Shepherds. (Photo courtesy the Catholic Archdiocese of Dubuque.)
It's raining on Saturday morning a few weeks ago, and the service is in progress as I enter an out-of-town orthodox synagogue.

A friend greets me, places a yarmulke on my head, and we take our seats among the men, in a pew on the left side of the Temple. The women are sitting on the other side, separated from the men by an aisle and a low, cloth-covered partition.

It's Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—and, at the front of the Synagogue an age-old ceremony is taking place: two Torah Scrolls are removed from the Holy Ark, and carried in procession in the temple. Men wearing prayer shawls bow as they touch the Torah Scroll, their hands wrapped in their white and blue talliths. Women, who are not wearing prayer shawls, touch the Scroll with their book of the Torah.

My friend has given me a book, and I follow the English translation as passages from Leviticus, Numbers, and Isaiah are read aloud in Hebrew, inspiring words about good deeds, kindness, and redemption.

In a room with a high vaulted celing lit by large stained-glass windows, I'm aware that I'm witnessing an ancient ceremony. But seeing fewer than 20 people in the the synagogue, I'm reminded why I'm there: to offer suggestions on sources that could place a value on the Synagogue's stained glass windows.

Could selling the stained glass mean extending its life? The very thought of taking away the temple's beautiful stained glass to possibly keep the synagogue doors open a little longer fills me with sadness.

But this synagogue is not the only house of worship facing closure. So many churches have closed, and in my travels around the country in search of the Nativity I have seen first-hand what changing demographics and economic realities can do to a church.

But there's hope: Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Saint Louis, Missouri) is an inner-city parish keeping its doors open against great odds—thanks to a dedicated nun and priest, their staff, and supportive congregation.

In Chicago, St. John Cantius is another great example of a church that was saved from closing: "St. John Cantius, which was founded in 1893, was filled at the beginning," says Brother Nathan Caswell, S.J.C. Then Odgen Avenue tore through the neighborhood, and the expressway, cut up the Polish Patch, as it was known. Attendance diminished to about 70 people for Sunday Mass. But soon, people started hearing about this church, and the numbers started to grow and grow. Now, about 2,000 families call this their parish. As Father Phillips always says, “the expressways that took people away can also bring them back."

And in Dubuque, Iowa—amidst a declining membership and mounting debt—historic St. Mary's Catholic Church held its last service.

"The closing of St. Mary's was very, very painful," says Tharsella Pins. I've gone to St. Mary's as long as I have lived. It is a beautiful church. It has a lot of windows. Those stained glass windows tell the story of the Virgin Mary."

I found Tharsella's name on a Web page dedicated to saving St. Mary's, and decided to give her a call. Her voice is halting, but strong.

"What is your name again? Alexis? I can't hear very well. I'm 100-years-old, you know. I'm of German descent, and do you know that those windows were made in Germany? Yes—that's why they're so precious! Actually, people from Germany contributed towards the cost of those windows. They're wonderful stained glass windows. They're very, very valuable.

"The whole life story of the Blessed Mother is right there in those windows. From the time she was a little girl, until her Assumption into heaven. Each window records a portion of her life story, that's what I'm trying to tell you."

Richly robbed Kings of the East worship the Newborn Child in this detail of the Nativity window, St. Mary's Catholic Church, Dubuque, Iowa. (Photo courtesy the Catholic Archdiocese of Dubuque.)
Yes, Monsignor Thomas Toal has sent me a photo of The Nativity window. I recognized that it was created by the F. X. Zettler Royal Bavarian Art Institute, considered one of the pre-eminent stained glass makers in the world.

"So you have you seen the windows?"

Not yet; I'm looking at one of The Nativity in a photograph.

"Oh, you haven't seen them? You have to come see them, and appreciate their beauty. I feel a great loss for St. Mary's, that's all I can say. When you close a church that has such beautiful windows it's a terrible loss."

Could you please tell me about the last mass at St. Mary's?

"I'm very elderly, I don't hear so very well; could you repeat that again?

Were you able to attend the last mass at St. Mary's?

"Oh, yes, of course, it was very touching for me. I had tears in my eyes. To close a church is a very serious thing, especially a beautiful church like St. Mary's. But there was a terrible debt. Just the heating bill was almost $10,000 a month.

"Do you know what m-o-n-e-y spells? That's money, and it takes money to support a church. And that's why the church couldn't keep going. But I didn't have that much money to give towards the expenses of St. Mary's."

Do you attend a different church now?

"I'm so elderly, that when I'm taken to church I go to St. Patrick's next door to St. Mary's. St. Patrick's was the Irish Church, and St. Mary's the German church. St. Patrick's has windows, but they're not like St. Mary's. St. Mary's windows were made in Munich, Germany, and they are unusual windows. It's a shame to close a church with such beautiful windows.

"Have you seen them? No? You have to come see them, and appreciate their beauty. I feel a great loss for St. Mary's, that's all I can say. Are you writing this for a newspaper? I worked for The Telegraph Herald. I was the secretary for the publisher, Mr. Woodward. I'm a single lady, that's how I got to be 100-years-old. Don't you ever read the Telegraph Herald?

I don't live in Dubuque, and I'm writing about St. Mary's for the Web. Please tell me, is it hard passing by St. Mary's on your way to St. Patrick's?

"It's so sorrowful that St. Mary's closed. Many years ago they had the Mass in German. But people don't speak a foreign language anymore."

Was the church full then? Do you remember how many families called St. Mary's home?

"No, I can't hardly tell you that, sir. You know, when you get to be my age, you're pretty old… I'm sorry I can't tell you that. If I were a younger person… But, you know, at my age, I'm just lucky to be able to carry on a conversation! When you get to be 100 years in life…"

I don't wish to tire you. Thank you so much. I'm so thankful to have been able to speak with you.

"It was a pleasure talking to you, too. How did you happen to know about St. Mary's? Are you connected with Dubuque at all?

No.I travel, and take photos, and write about church Nativity windows.

"Yes, they do have beautiful art. A church like St. Mary's, people are impressed by its beauty. And do you know that St. Mary's has the most beautiful bells? But, you know, in later years, people haven't liked church bells, because they disturb their sleep—which is ridiculous, but that's the way it is. Have you been inside St. Mary's?"

No, but I plan to visit soon.

"Be sure to stop by. There's so much gold leaf… Do you know what gold leaf is? If you saw St. Mary's altar, that gold leaf is all hand-rubbed. You put it on the palm of your hand, and you rub it into the wood. And that causes the gold leaf to shine. We had two gold leaf altars, and one white marble altar. You know what white marble is?

Do you mean Carrara marble, from Italy?

"Carrara marble. Be sure and go to St. Mary's and look all around. It's very impressive, and very beautiful. I wish that it could continue as a church. Where people can pray, that's my prayer.

This has been wonderful. Is there anything more you'd like to add?

"Pardon me, sir? I'm sorry, I'm so old…"

You're doing just fine! I so appreciate your time. Is there anything else you'd like to say about St. Mary's?

"The last mass was very sad, because the Bishop came out and he had to remove a blessing from each part of the church. It was very impressive, but very, very sad, and I would not like to see it again. A church closing is a terrible loss for the community. Are you still there?

This Adoration of the Shepherds detail combines high-and-low resolution images, but the Zettler artistry is very much in evidence. (Photo courtesy the Catholic Archdiocese of Dubuque.)

Yes, I'm listening to you. Can you please tell me how do you pronounce your first name?

"Tharsella, with the accent over the "e." Years ago, there was a Saint Tharsella, who never married! That's why I never married, probably. My parents gave me that name when I was baptized. Were you baptized?"

Yes; I'm Greek Orthodox.

"Where you born in Greece? Years ago I visited Greece. I used to do a lot of traveling. I came home on a Greek ship.

Was it the Santa Maria?

"That was Christopher Columbus' ship!"

Sorry, I meant to say the Queen Anna Maria, the ship that brought me to America?

"Yes, that was it! Will you tell me again what your job is again?

I'm a photographer.

"It was certainly nice to talk to you, and I hope you are happy in your work."

Thank you so much. I appreciated more than I can say. I'd love to meet you when I visit Dubuque.

"You do that. Bye-bye, sir."

Tharsella, of course, isn't alone in grieving the loss of St. Mary's. In his Homily for the closing of St. Mary’s Parish, the Most Rev. Jerome Hanus, OSB, Archbishop of Dubuque, spoke for everyone when he said, "Celebrating the Mass for the closing of St. Mary’s parish is an occasion for sadness and grieving. In a certain sense, the feelings we have are similar to what we experience at the funeral of a beloved member of the family.

"Closing a parish is one of the most difficult things I do as your Archbishop. Even though the whole Archdiocese, along with the entire heartland of America, is undergoing significant downsizing, it is still very difficult. This is especially true for you who are members of this parish. You have had to endure the slow death of something that is very dear to you.

"You have worked hard, trying to avert this moment. Many other people have shared your pain, in particular those who had treasured moments of their Catholic faith here at St. Mary’s. Many former members have returned in these last weeks; many of you are with us this evening. Your presence and consolation are appreciated."

Since 1867. St. Mary's 252-foot steeple has towered over Dubuque. It is still an inspiration to many, as it has been to former St. Mary's Pastor, the Rev. Anthony W. Sigwarth who penned this poem:

You cannot look down on St. Mary’s
Its steeple towers so high;
In sun and in moonlight and weather,
It seems to commune with the sky.

The secrets it snatches from heaven
May it share with this town and its people
Who toil here with hope in the valley
And look up with joy to the steeple.

Perhaps Rev. Sigwarth's words about the people of Dubuque looking up again with joy at the steeple of St. Mary's may yet come true. A note I received a few days ago from Doug Herman, Augusta, Georgia, certainly holds out hope:

"Hello Alexis.

"Wonderful tribute to St. Joseph Church in Macon Georgia. That church's sister-built church in Augusta is now Sacred Heart Cultural Center which will celebrate on 12/2/2010 the 110th year of the opening of the of the Augusta church. Hope you can come.

Sacred Heart Cultural Center in Augusta, Georgia opened in 1900 as a Catholic church under the auspices of the The Society of Jesus, a Catholic order whose priests are known as Jesuits.

"The building was designed nearly identical to the great Sacred Heart Church of Galveston Texas, which was destroyed by one of the worst hurricanes in American history.

"In 1900 as Sacred Heart Augusta doors opened, Sacred Heart of Galveston was being leveled by the sea by The Great Storm! As Augusta’s population moved out of the downtown area, Sacred Heart Church closed in 1971 and fell into terrible disrepair.

"A wonderful benefactor did a major restoration in 1987 and gifted the building to Augusta for use as Sacred Heart Cultural Center. Today it is a beautiful public venue for weddings, garden festivals, musical events, and visitor self tours. It is one of Augusta’s most cherished and most photographed treasures."

What a wonderful story, and what a wonderful wish for Tharsella's beloved church: that, in Doug's words, St. Mary's may become one of Dubuque's, "most cherished and photographed treasures."

I look forward to visiting St. Mary's in the near future. Monsignor Thomas Toale, DBQCVGD, of the Dubuque Catholic Archdiocese has kindly offered to open the church for me so I can photograph the Nativity window and say a prayer in Tharsela's beloved St. Mary's. And wouldn't it be wonderful if I also got to meet Tharsella?

I also look forward to meeting Candice Chaloupka and Suzanne Wright, authors of
St. Mary's, The Finest Church West of the Mississippi.

The Nativity, St. Mary's Catholic Church, Dubuque, Iowa. (Photo courtesy the Catholic Archdiocese of Dubuque.)

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