HARPER — A dollar can be used to buy a soda from a gas station, a candy bar from Fareway or a popcorn at a local sporting event. In Harper, it was used by the Clear Creek Heritage Association to buy an entire church.
The SS. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Harper was founded in 1864 by German immigrants. Sheila Horris, a member of the Clear Creek Heritage Association said the building was literally built from the ground it stands on.
The parish was founded in 1847 inside a home. A log church was then built and once the church became too small for the congregation, the parishioners banned together to build the larger church that still stands today.
Because the fields around the area are rich with clay, it was harvested and formed into bricks. Horris said ovens were built on site to fire them and slowly the church was built by hand. The woodwork of the pews and altars are all original to the building and were built by a woodworker in Davenport and brought in.
The church was active until 2008 when the parish was merged with St. Elizabeth’s in Harper and St. Mary’s in Keota. The bishop then issued profane status, which meant catholic services could no longer be held in the building. Ten years later it still is unclear to her why this was done.
Later that year, the parish council decided to have the church torn down and sent out a request for proposal (RFP) for the demolition. After no one bid, there was hope of saving the building after all, so seven men from the original parish got together to hatch a plan.
Tom Thompson was one of the seven who approached the parish council to discuss purchasing the building. The council said the newly formed Clear Creek Heritage Association could purchase the building if it was able to raise enough money to put the building into escrow. That way, if the purchase did not get approved the council could still have it torn down.
Thompson said the group met in the church that next day and began making phone calls.
“I know in 15 minutes time we collected $45,000 in donations just by phone,” he said. “That’s when they offered it for sale for a dollar.”
In June 2009, the association was able to purchase the church and all of its contents. However, the building had more problems than the initial start up could fund.
At the same time, Horris read an article in a newspaper about a preservation architect who helped save a church in southwest Iowa that was damaged in an arson fire. She contacted him and he came out to see how he could help.
That winter, the architect, Kirk Blunck, brought two interns down and they mapped everything out. Thompson said they now have the exact dimensions and sketches of the church where they could rebuild it exactly like it is if they ever had to.
Blunck was able to teach the group how to apply for grants and using his sketches, they were able to begin working on projects. Thompson said this became helpful immediately. He said right after the church was purchased, the group was warned the cost of heating the church in the winter would be significant.
He said upon inspection of the boiler system, it was discovered it was purchased used in the 1960s and was inefficient. The association was able to purchase a new boiler system and have it installed, the first of many projects.
Horris said over the course of the 10 years the association has owned the property, it has used nearly $500,000 of grant funds into the restoration. The group has done numerous repairs from adding a new roof, repairing the steeple and most recently repairing the 22 stain glassed windows inside. The group still is working on repairs and has a plan to work on stabilization and replacing the bricks. Although it is a massive undertaking, she said she knows it’s the right thing to do.
“It’s God’s will that this church is here because no matter what we do we always have just enough money to pay for it. No more no less,” she said.
Thompson agreed, saying the church should have just fallen but credits his German catholic upbringing for his stubbornness to preserve the space. Knowing his ancestors were among the original founding members of the church helped as well, he said.
Horris said her husband’s side of the family was also among the founders making the connection much deeper for her. She said she cannot imagine not having the church around because to her, it is more than just a building.
“When I think of the church, it just represents to me all of the hardships that these people went through just to have a place to worship. There’s story after story of these people and they found strength through their faith,” she said. “To me it feels like home. I can come here and find peace I can’t find anyplace else.”
On Sunday, Dec. 8, the church will be open to the public as the Southeast Iowa Symphony Orchestra and the Iowa Wesleyan choir will be holding a free concert at 2 p.m. A freewill offering will be taken with all proceeds going back to help fund further projects inside. The Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church is located at 30832 240th Street in Harper.