CEDAR RAPIDS — As the Cedar River left its banks, rising floodwaters threatened St. Patrick’s Catholic Church four blocks away. The Rev. Steven Rosonke lit a votive candle at the altar of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Nine days later, after hundreds of homes and businesses had been destroyed, after electric lights in all of them had been extinguished, the candle’s flame continued to flicker.
The little candle was supposed to burn only five days. It should have gone dark long before anyone was allowed back into the church.
This story — “The Beacon of Hope” — and others are told on the church’s new history wall, which was unveiled Jan. 27.
The wall hearkens back to the founding of St. Patrick’s in 1886 while also focusing on the church’s recovery from the Floods of 2008.
“The flood did us a favor,” says Cindy Koczo, pastoral minister and office manager. “It’s been a wonderful ride.”
Nobody but a true believer would have called the flood a blessing in June 2008. More than 100 church families lost their homes; many their businesses, too. The 1891 church, the 2005 parish center, the 1924 rectory, were all filled with floodwaters that left a muddy mess. While church members prayed for the best, many of them — some out loud and others under their breaths — feared this would be the end of St. Patrick’s.
But, it seems, that the candle had continued to burn for a reason.
Today, Koczo says, “We have more members now than when the flood hit.”
More than 900 families belong to St. Patrick’s. With three weekend masses — 4 p.m. Saturdays and 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Sundays — it’s often tough to find a seat.
“We’re talking about adding a third Sunday mass,” Koczo says. “People are excited we’re back. People are interested and involved. We are a closer parish.”
With a rich history, especially among Irish settlers, St. Patrick’s had grown to 2,000 families by 1950 and was the largest parish in Iowa. A remodel of the church at that time included removal of the roof and extensive enhancements to an interior already decorated with beautiful marble, mosaics and stained glass windows.
Then, a decade later, the Archdiocese of Dubuque formed a new parish — St. Jude’s. About half of St. Patrick’s families transferred there. LaSalle High School was built, and, in 1963, St. Patrick’s High School closed.
For nearly 40 years, the remaining St. Patrick’s school continued to operate until the area’s Catholic schools reorganized again. LaSalle consolidated with Regis High School on the east side of Cedar Rapids to become Xavier High School.
Through change, St. Patrick’s persevered.
In 2008, Koczo says, as church members held mass at Roosevelt Middle School, the Archdiocese responded to their plea to keep the parish open. But they require $1.1 million be raised to prove it was still viable. The money would pay off debt, help with rebuilding and prove the parish was sound.
“After they let us rebuild the church, word got around,” Koczo says. “We had money donated by people from around the country.”
The priority, of course, was to help church members get back on their feet first, then to enlist a huge volunteer force to clean up and rebuild the church. On Easter 2009, with 400 cushioned straight back chairs replacing the damaged pews, Father Philip Thompson welcomed the congregation home. That fall he kicked off the $1.1 million campaign.
The following summer, after Thompson transferred to St. Pius, Father Ivan Nienhaus came to St. Patrick’s. A Fort Atkinson native, he was prepared to transfer from Ames. He wasn’t prepared for St. Patrick’s.
“I prayed for every possible assignment I could imagine,” he says. “This was the only parish I didn’t pray about.”
He knew why his first mass in July 2010.
“We could have fit all three masses into one,” he says. “I knew it was bad. I didn’t think it was that bad.”
Nienhaus, 52, also learned the capitol campaign was $300,000 short. He addressed that his second Sunday.
“Guard your purses and your wallets,” he warned church members. “I’m going to visit each one of you.”
He did. By October, the money had been raised. Soon, he’d raised another $80,000 for pews, $50,000 for a new chapel in the parish center and, so far, $170,000 of the $200,000 needed to restore the rectory.
“Not only have people been generous, but the people of the parish have rebuilt this place,” he says. “Some people could not give financially,” he adds, “but they worked and they prayed.”
The Eucharistic Adoration at the chapel, open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, has more than 500 people pass through it each week to pray, meditate and reflect on where they’ve been and where they’re going.
“It’s been huge for this parish,” Koczo says. “Father Ivan has been fantastic.”
“There’s a new vibrancy here. There’s a new energy to this church,” Nienhaus says. “These are wonderful people.”