Rural Iowa's Awe Inspiring Church
My jaw dropped walking through the main doors. I don’t know my mouth ever fully closed while I was there.
I would not argue with Catholics who claim it to be a religious experience. I would not be surprised to learn that were the case for Christians of other denominations.
Whether you are a religious person or not, I do not exaggerate when I say it’s an incredible work of art and architecture. What makes it more amazing is that it’s in a small rural town in Northeast Iowa.
“It” is the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier in Dyersville.
I’d been to Dyersville in the past, visiting the Field of Dreams movie site, but had no idea the Basilica existed. Heading to the field recently I just happened to see the basilica on a list of local things to do, had time to kill and decided to check it out.
Serendipity is a wonderful thing.
Setting aside just how beautiful the church is, perhaps the more amazing aspect is that Dyersville’s population back in 1888, when the church’s cornerstone was laid, was roughly 1,200, the same as its seating capacity. That’s right, everyone living in Dyersville at the time, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, could have fit inside. Even today the population is less than 4,500.
The Catholic Church holds the title of “basilica” for churches of unusual architectural and spiritual significance. St. Francis Xavier was only the 12th church in the country receiving the title, coming thanks to a special papal edict by Pope Pius XII in 1956.
It is one 77 currently scattered around the United States and is especially unique in that it is one of only three located in rural areas.
An estimated 6,000 people were in attendance for its dedication in December of 1989. Many of those came in on excursion trains specifically chartered for the event from Chicago and other parts of Iowa and Illinois.
Fun fact, the original cost was $100,000. Of course, that would be north of $3 million today.
The biggest question I have is why? Why was such an elaborate church built, much like that baseball diamond in the movies, in an Iowa cornfield?
The only stories I’ve found online tell of how the Catholic population of the area had outgrown its previous church and a new one was needed. Nothing explains why what they constructed went far beyond a simple church design. If anyone can point me to the story behind the story I would love to read it.
Maybe it was with the simple belief that, if you build it, they will come. There are approximately 1,800 families in the parish today, a total of 5,000 parishioners.
The sheer amount of artwork, architecture and detail involved inside the church is overwhelming. I can’t begin to put it into words and won’t try. I offer a few little tidbits of background instead:
Outside, the church spires stand 212 feet above the ground. On top are two gold-leafed crosses, 14-feet high and 6-feet/8-inches wide.
Stained Glass Windows
There are 64 stained glass windows throughout the church, depicting everything from the Life of Christ to Noah’s Ark.
All the paintings in the church were done in 1904 and 1905 by Milwaukee brother and sister, Alphonse and Lottie Brielmaier. For whatever reason their work was partially covered in 1930 and 1955, but thankfully was completely restored in 2000 and 2001.
The center aisle was restored more recently, in 1998. What makes it significant is that it was the first flooring of its kind in the nation to combine the use of epoxy-based terrazzo and computer-generated water jet laser cutting for the brass molds.
At the end of the aisle is a cross containing five marble pieces from the floor of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Under its center piece is a chip from the Grotto in Lourdes, France.
There are three altars in the church:
The High Altar is made of Italian marble and Mexican onyx and rests upon a solid rock foundation, one of the requirements for an altar to be consecrated.
Above the High Altar is an 1873, wood carved crucifix from the original St. Francis Xavier Church, the one the current basilica replaced. It was made by an early parishioner from a walnut tree on his farm.
The baldachin, canopy, above the High Altar stands 52-feet high and is made of carved butternut.
The Altar of St. Joseph, and the Holy Family, is 36-feet tall. In the center is a 1900 Bavarian wood carving of the Holy Family with an angel presenting a small church to the infant Jesus.
In front of the Altar of St. Joseph is an 1870’s oak Baptismal Font and the Easter Candle. Two others like it, but gilded, are in a church in Beverly Hills, California.
The third alter, The Altar of The Blessed Virgin Mary (Rosary Altar) is the same size as the Altar of St. Joseph. At the top of it are statuary pieces of Sts. Dominic and Catherine of Siena receiving the Rosary from the Madonna and Child.
The basilica is a church so there is no charge for visiting but a donation box is located near the door. It’s open daily from 7 a.m. – 8 p.m. Mass is held daily so be aware of those times when planning a visit.
And in of my more stupid moves, I didn't have my camera with me and had to use my phone to take photos. I should definitely know better and hopefully will be making a future trip that way, with camera in tow.
**I allow use of my photos through Creative Commons License. I'm not looking to make money off this thing. I only ask you provide me with credit for the photo by noting my blog address, alansheaven.com, or a link back to this page.