Photos by Tom Parker
The way it should have been
To see St. Elizabeth Catholic Church now is to see it back in 1913 when its dedication drew people from miles around. The bell tower is the same, or almost—the open windows have been covered with louvers—with the same clean lines almost Spartan in simplicity. The white siding is an exact match for the painted clapboard of the original, with the same stained glass windows and same minuscule porch and same steep-pitched roof. What's different is an extension behind the sanctuary, noticeable only when compared to old grainy black-and-white photos. And the location, of course.
The church was erected in the small prairie town of Irving, about ten miles from where it now anchors the southeast corner of Blue Rapids. Nothing is left of Irving except for a carved headstone and a lone bullet-pocked mailbox where visitors scribble reminiscences on a tattered spiral notebook left there for that purpose. The town was flattened in 1879 by twin tornadoes, a double-whammy that gave the town national exposure and inspiration for a series of novels about a fabled land somewhere over the rainbow. Though Mother Nature dealt it a severe blow, it took the might of the U.S. Corps of Engineers to finish the job with a mass restructuring of the Blue River Valley for the controversial Tuttle Creek Reservoir project. In 1961 the town was dismantled, parts of it loaded onto skids and carted off like so much baggage. St. Elizabeth Church joined the exodus.
One new addition was a cinderblock basement that acted as a parish hall. The basement gave parishioners the extra room needed to come together as a community. It was also a blessing and a curse, the church’s salvation and—almost—its demise.
When a dwindling population forced the Archdiocese to consider closing either St. Elizabeth or St. Monica Church in neighboring Waterville, the decision ultimately rested upon that block brick foundation. Of the two, only one had a basement. When St. Monica’s parishioners were absorbed into St. Elizabeth in 2003, the name of their church was appended with that of their new parish.
But age and water took its toll on the brick until it sagged inward, threatening the structural integrity. After heavy rains water would pool around the building so that it seemed to float above its own shallow moat. As Ed Henry puts it, “The church came out of a Tuttle Creek bottom, but it’s not totally out of it.”
Henry was involved in trying to find solutions—affordable solutions, that is. The first estimates varied in scope, some astronomical in size. When it appeared the basement might pose an insurmountable obstacle, a committee was formed to determine the fate of the church. Some wanted it razed and a new church built, phoenix-like on its ashes. Others wanted to preserve their history and their church. The basement was the keystone to everything that followed.
But even after an expert stepped forward show the committee a few fairly inexpensive steps needed to assure survival, and after talk of restoring the church proper began to form into a cohesive unity, what happened next was something of a miracle.
“She’s my guardian angel,” Henry says. “I have no idea how she got involved.”
Enter Eileen Ratigan. She’s a third-generation Catholic church designer and restoration expert whose business, Sacred Heart Church Art, dates back to its founding in 1928 when her grandfather, Leo Ratigan, began restoring churches and statuary as an apprentice under Italian and German artisans in Omaha, Neb. According to Ratigan, she was asked to contact the building committee by Father James Shaughnessy once the condition of the foundation, and the church itself, was determined to be viable.
More than expertise, though, Ratigan brought a vision into the planning process. Her design called for a complete revamp with more than just “spit and polish,” something Henry described as being where the committee was heading. Under Ratigan’s proposal, St. Elizabeth would transform into a quaint clapboard prairie church into “a jewel.”
She reminded the committee of what she calls the long view. “You’re not really doing it for yourself,” she says. “You’re doing it for God and for the next generations to follow.”
With that, work got started. The committee, Ratigan says, took the long view, dug deep into their pockets and made it their own.
Fortunately, a new parish hall had been built on the south side of the parking lot in late 2005. Services shifted to the hall as the interior of St. Elizabeth was gutted. Work has been delayed as extensive water damage was revealed in the bell tower and the basement, but the project is expected to be completed by late summer.
As of mid-June scaffolding still litters the nave and the altar, and much of the woodwork facing the balcony is under plastic sheeting, but enough can be seen to get a feel for what the final product will look like. Ratigan’s influences are evident.
“Traditionally, the idea of the church was to be the New Jerusalem,” she says. “Since you couldn’t afford to pave the streets in gold, you had to use the very best materials and design to get as close to heaven as the church could afford.”
Not that the working-class residents of Irving had much money to spare, which is why the structure was thrown together with plaster and lathe and simple woodframe construction. After it was relocated to Blue Rapids the rear extension was added for additional storage space. Later, vinyl siding was added, and a drop ceiling. One of the first orders of business was to rip out the latter.
“It was a really nasty, really ugly ceiling,” Henry says.
Replacing it is a colorful vaulted roof with stamped tin plates patterned with quatrefoils, or four leaf clovers. The clovers represent the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
“Everything we do is based on scripture,” Ratigan says. “The quatrefoil was a Gothic device. That’s what I love about Gothic architecture, it was all about symbolism. Everything had a meaning.”
The chancel has been lowered and extended outward slightly. Besides providing more room for the communion table and lecterns, the lower elevation will reduce the height of the altar. ”It used to look like it stuck through the ceiling,” Henry says.
Statuary on the chancel is also being reduced. “It was really busy,” Henry says. “We decided to simplify and to return to a more historic Catholic Church tradition.”
Simplifying, though, isn’t a simple concept, Ratigan says. “It goes much deeper than that,” she says. “I’m an anti-simple decorator. Simple doesn’t mean bare. You have to have traditions: Mary always goes on the left, Joseph on the right, Christ in the center. That’s traditional church architecture going back a thousand years. That’s what we’re going back to. It’s not simple.”
A meditation area is planned for the northwest corner of the nave. It’s there that the statues of Saints Elizabeth and Monica will be placed, along with Our Lady of Guadalupe. A growing Hispanic population convinced the church of the need for a monthly Spanish Mass, though the saint herself is known as the benefactor for unborn children. “Our Lady of Guadalupe serves two needs,” Ratigan says.
All woodwork has been restored and new lights added. Already the church has a new feel to it, more airy, the light streaming through the stained glass windows almost ethereal.
While she admits St. Elizabeth is one of the smallest churches she’s restored, Ratigan prefers not to look at a project based on size. “They’re all equally important,” she says. “There’s no big job or small job. No matter what size you’re working on, when you’re done the church should feel like home. It should be uplifting. It should be breathtaking.”
Which pretty much describes the place even under construction.
Ornamentation, however, must match the spatial confines of the structure, she insists. “You can’t overdo it,” she says. “It has to fit in with the character of what’s there.”
The stamped tin was an ideal match for the A-frame ceiling, what she calls a “prairie Gothic peak.” “It wasn’t an imitation of Gothic architecture as much as it was an accommodation,” she says.
In a rural economy, accommodation is often what passes for vision. Thanks to several generous bequests, much of the $150,000 earmarked for the project was already raised. Setbacks, however, pushed the final cost upwards to $180,000. Parishioners agreed to dig a little deeper.
“Once people see what the church looks like when it’s completed,” Henry says, “donations should come a little faster.”
The church draws about 70 families. “We’re fairly active for a small parish,” he says.
As work near completion, Ratigan’s vision takes form. She also scoffs at Henry’s allusion to her as a guardian angel.
Henry, she says, has been the main supporter for the project, juggling competing factions, plans and proposals with the goal of keeping everybody working together for the common good. “He did the heavy lifting,” she says. “It wouldn’t have happened without him.”
“We wanted something truly worthy,” Henry says. “We wanted it to really stand out. It should grab you when you walk in, pull you in, make you want to worship the Lord.”
Another parishioner, Mike Minihan, described Ratigan’s work as restoring churches into what they used to be or should have been. “This is what St. Elizabeth should have been,” he says.
Which is to say, “a jewel.”