The World’s Smallest Church

Believe me when I say that I did not start out yesterday with the intention of driving half-way across the state of Iowa just so I could write a blog about the world’s smallest church.

But like last weekend, my plans got somewhat derailed.

It all started yesterday morning when I woke up to the sounds of a thunderstorm. The plan for the day was to leave Ames early, drive to northeast Iowa, visit Effigy Mounds National Monument, and then head back along Hwy. 20 and stop to tour Cedar Rock – the Lowell Walter house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and located near Quasqueton, Iowa.

I’ve been to Effigy Mounds before and blogged about my experience back in October, but Dave wanted to visit the site, so we decided it would be a nice outing for Memorial Day weekend. And I figured the tour of Cedar Rock would give me something new to write about.

So off we went at about 7:30 a.m. The skies were stormy, but the rain had stopped, and we were optimistic about our chances for a good day. But not far into the drive, we caught up with the storm that had dumped on Ames earlier in the morning, and it started raining steadily.

The Cedar Rock website isn’t exactly stellar, and I wasn’t completely clear on the hours of operation during Memorial Day Weekend, so as we neared the turnoff for Quasqueton, we decided to drop by and check it out. (The highway sign promoting the site said “closed,” by the way.) We got to the gate (which also says “closed”) and drove up to the front of the visitor center just as a DNR truck pulled up behind us. I hopped out to go check out the posted hours, but the DNR rep stopped me and asked if I needed anything. I told her our plans to return to the home later in the day – if it was going to be open. She said it would be open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. for tours on the hour – and that if you don’t sign up for a tour, you don’t get to visit the home. (I thought the website made the guided tours seem optional.) She said the 4 o’clock tour was already full but that she’d sign me up for the 3 o’clock tour if I wanted. That sounded like a reasonable plan.

By the time I finished talking to her and got back in the car, I was drenched despite the fact that I’d been under a large umbrella the whole time. The rain continued as we headed northeast, and the lovely, rolling farmland I fell in love with last fall looked gloomy and sad underneath all the rain and fog.

Undaunted, we continued to Effigy Mounds (near Marquette, Iowa). When we arrived, it was raining so hard and the wind was so fierce, we just couldn’t make ourselves start out on the hike to the top of the site…so we hung out in the visitor center and watched the introductory film. When we emerged, the rain had let up a bit and the wind had died down, so we headed up the hill to the mounds and to lovely (on a good day) views of the Mississippi.

Someday I’d like to walk the full length of the Effigy Mounds trails. But not yesterday. Not in the rain. Although it did stop at times during our hike – and the rain made the green grass and trees practically glow.

After we visited some of the mounds and two views of the river, we walked back to our car…soggy and covered with mud…and headed to McGregor for lunch.

McGregor is the little river town just south of Effigy Mounds where I stayed overnight during my visit last fall. Dave and I ate at Old Man River, the brewpub I liked so much. We ordered onion rings for an appetizer because we were starving. They came out on a plate so huge and heaping with donut-sized rings that we shared them with the table full of strangers next to us.

By the time we’d eaten our lunch, it was nearly 2 o’clock – not nearly enough time to get back to Cedar Rock by 3 p.m. I called guest services to check on a possible cancellation in the 4 o’clock group and, hearing there was none, cancelled our 3 o’clock spot.

So now what to do? I had enjoyed going to Lansing last fall, so we headed up the river road and drove across the steel bridge at Lansing, then to the top of Mt. Hosmer for another view of the river (right). By this time, it had really stopped raining and the day was starting to brighten up a bit. We started back toward Ames via Elon Road – the 13-mile drive along a ridge with scenes of rolling farmland on either side.

Last fall, I was disappointed that The Sugar Bowl Ice Cream Company in Decorah had already closed for the season. So we decided to give it a try – and sure enough, it was open when we arrived. I had a scoop of coconut almond, and Dave – always the adventurer – got vanilla.

Leaving Decorah, I still wasn’t sure what I was going to blog about, but I was looking at the map to decide whether to drive back on Hwy. 9 or go south on Hwy. 150…when I saw some tiny type that said “World’s Smallest Church” just near Festina on Hwy 150. Bingo!

(As we’re trying to find this tiny church, I’m thinking wow, I was just at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City – which I’m told is the largest church in the world. How ironic!)

It turns out that the world’s smallest church – officially called St. Anthony of Padua Chapel – is really adorable if you can find it (turn west at Festina, go down a gravel road, turn left on Little Church Road, go past some farms, and you’re there). I was joking on the way there that the church might be so small we’ll drive right by it without seeing it…and I might have to put a quarter next to it for scale in my photos. But all joking aside, it really was very sweet. You can walk right in and see the stained glass windows and the four tiny wooden pews – painted pale blue and each big enough for two regular-sized people or three tiny people. There’s an altar and some statues, and outside there are more statues and a few old graves and a log cabin.

For a dollar, you can buy a little brochure about the history of the church, which I did. (They sell them in the church’s entryway, on the honor system.) Here is what I learned: St. Anthony of Padua Chapel is 14 x 20 feet, and the belfry is 40 feet high. It seats 8. The church was built in 1885, using stones quarried just across the river. The chapel was built on the site of the first Catholic mission north of Dubuque. The family of Johann Gaertner built the chapel to honor a vow his mother made if Johann, who was drafted into the French army and served under Napoleon, returned safely from the Russian campaign. Or something like that. Relatives of Frank Huber (Johann’s son-in-law) maintain the chapel and grounds, which include Johann’s grave.

Well. The smallest church in the world. That seemed like a blog to me. So we headed home, tired, wet, happy… and still covered with mud.


2 comments so far

  1. Cathann Kress on

    Enjoyed reading about your soggy adventure- it made me think of the Little Brown Church in the Vale near Nashua. Have you seen that?

    I’m arriving in Ames mid-June- hope to see you sometime soon after that!


  2. Linda J Dickson on

    Johann Gaertner is my ancestor. Thank you for this information! The chapel is adorable and I hope to see it one day! The family has a charming legend surrounding how this Church came to be built.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: