Loss of an Old Friend
Parishioners await the fate of St. John the Baptist, West
by David M. Johnson
Once more the hot, dry summer winds were blowing
against the cool stone walls of my old friend. The
searing heat from the overhead sun bounced off the
aging steeple, its crown that towered above the
surrounding trees and fields. One more summer before
a possible sentence of death in the fall may end this
venerable sentinel on the ridge.
No more seasons experienced, no more rain, snow or
sunshine to be enjoyed. There would be no more
gathering of families, friends or neighbors within
its solid, aging walls and under its protecting wood
and rafters. Successions of generations have been
witnessed by my old friend; the births, the aging and
the deaths. My old friend welcomed the pride and joy
of the newborns of the many baptisms. The more
children that came through its doors meant that
families would share their lives, the ups and downs,
the worries and heartaches, the victories and
successes that human life has to offer.
The celebrations of each marriage with the many
festivals and holy days were shared and enjoyed
within its protective, silent stone. Its shadows
absorbed the grief and sorrow when one of its own
finally yielded to the night of life, their souls and
bodies sharing the very ground that lay within reach
of this vigilant witness of life and death.
On this beautiful ridge of northeast Iowa sits not
only a friend of mine but a friend to many a farmer,
teacher, storekeeper, doctor and lawyer. All walks of
life that make Iowa live and breathe have passed in
and out of its arched stone doorway. They all have
left a little bit of themselves as well have taken a
footprint of time to be cherished when times allow
reflection. This building, this House of God, if
given the opportunity could speak volumes about the
many lives it has touched. But alas, its future
St. John the Baptist Catholic Church of West Ridge is
another victim of the changing times. With the
shortage of Catholic priests in the United States, it
has become a painful decision for many a bishop and
parish priest to close the churches that dot the
landscape of this great country. The decision for
West Ridge is not unique, for the future of St. John
the Baptist is also the future of the Catholic
churches of Hanover, Dorchester, Cherry Mound,
Wexford, New Albin and Harpers Ferry.
The parish of Lycurgus was closed this past July. The
members of St. John the Baptist have accepted the
inevitable with its closing, it's the decision of the
Diocese of Dubuque with what to do with the buildings
that have alarmed this once passive, peaceful people.
Not high winds, fire or the afflictions of time will
do in this landmark of the prairie, but the bulldozer
ordered by the Church hierarchy that will prey upon
its stone walls.
The reverence shown to it by its builders and family
of ancestors that followed will be replaced with zeal
to bring it down. It is almost ironic that the same
enthusiasm to build would be the same enthusiasm to
destroy. What must those pioneer spirits be thinking?
A house where they and their children and
grandchildren could physically, spiritually and
mentally reach out to a Supreme Being they so
fervently loved and believed in would so cavalierly
be treated. The past of this simple but grand
building was different.
West Ridge is just one of many picturesque settings
and rural communities found in Allamakee County.
Thanks to the continental glaciers and ice sheets of
ancient times, we have the hills, valleys and streams
that were formed and define the Ridge. With the
passing and moving of the Ioways, Sac and Fox,
Winnebago and Sioux tribes, the Europeans began
The first settlers in West Ridge were, interestingly,
some of the first settlers in Union Prairie Township
and Allamakee County. John Magner, William Rea, Pat,
John and Dan Curtin are a few of the early pioneers
who planted their Irish roots in this inviting Iowa
soil. When you pass over the names in the early
records, Rea, Curtin, Magner, Liddiard, O'Neil, Ryan,
Baxter, Farley and Drew, you recognize these names
because their ancestors still live here, 150 years
later. With this dominant Irish heritage, there were
later the sprinkling of the Germans, Norwegians and
Swedes, Berns, Colsch, Onsager, Snitker and Johnson
with the Marsden, Urell, Mahoney, Mellick and
McMorrow families adding seasoning to this mix.
West Ridge is typical Iowa, typical Middle America.
There was a strong Catholic faith to go along with
this Irish culture and a need for a building to
worship. Groundwork was laid in 1860 for a church
building, ten years after the first mass was
celebrated in a West Ridge home. A lot for the
cemetery and a lot for the church were purchased, for
twenty dollars, by Bishop Clement Smyth, with the
deed for the property later sold back to the parish.
With the rock quarried from the William Rea farm, the
construction began in 1861.
It was not until 1863 that St. John the Baptist
Church was completed because Union Prairie #2 school,
the area's local one-room country school was built
between starting and finishing the church project. It
was not until 1891 when the parish had its first
resident priest, Father Edmund Ryan from Ireland.
Father Ryan built a residence, which later evolved
into several other buildings for chickens, protection
for the horses of the parishioners and a church hall
In November 1911, the church was formally
incorporated under the charge of Father F.
McCullough. The laymen directors were Francis Drew
and David O'Brien. In 1939, St. John the Baptist
parish was made a mission parish with it later being
designated an oratory in 1991. Before the decision to
close St. John the Baptist, it was believed to be the
third oldest church still in use in the Archdiocese
Like other early pioneer settlements, the local
church was not the only identifying landmark or hub
of activity. This old church witnessed, in its
younger days, a sawmill on nearby Coon Creek. Started
in 1859, it was in operation near where the Regi
Tysland home is today. Like Hanover, Canoe and
Sattre, West Ridge had a store. The "Hale
Store" was in operation where the Cletus Pladsen
farm now lies. In 1893 a post office called Connor
was established at the house of Jeremiah Ryan, now
owned by the Baxter family. Jeremiah was the
postmaster until the establishment of rural free
delivery, thus disbanding the post office.
Education was as important to the people as well as
their faith. By 1886 in Union Prairie #2, #5 and #8,
lying in between Coon Creek to the south and the
Upper Iowa River and Patterson Creek to the north and
west of the church, the children of the parish and
non-Catholic residents were given the famous one-room
country school education.
If the Milwaukee Railroad had not suddenly backed
off, a railroad would have been a common sight seen
from the church. In 1883 and 1884 a narrow gauge
grade, later upgraded to standard gauge, was
constructed to establish an extension from Waukon to
Decorah. It is believed that the threat of competing
interests forced the Milwaukee to build. With the
withering interest by other railroads before the
completion of the line, Milwaukee determined it did
not need the extension and withdrew its support in
finishing the railroad. The grade extension can still
be seen along the banks of Coon Creek.
With the construction firmly established by 1862, St.
John the Baptist witnessed not only the growing of
the local families but the State and Nation as well.
The beginning of the American Civil War was a
constant topic and worrying interest of the farm
families attempting to scratch out a living in this
Although the Plains Indians were farther to the north
and west, when Lincoln sent General Pope, the
defeated Union commander at Second Bull Run, to
Minnesota to squash a Sioux uprising, residents were
made uneasy. Legend has it that several families were
ready to move to safer confines if the conflict moved
further south. The Indian has always been in the mix
of this area.
About four miles to the west of St. John the Baptist
Church, across the Winneshiek -Allamakee County line,
lies a prominent natural landmark where Coon Creek
Road crosses Trout River and a short distance from
the Upper Iowa River. Captain Nathan Boone, the son
of Daniel Boone, used a rock cliff as a surveying
landmark while establishing the 1825 Neutral Line.
Boone was the U.S. Deputy Surveyor responsible for
the government's attempts to separate the Winnebago
from the Sioux.
As the Indian nations were a part of our expansion
but so were the outlaw's part of this history of not
only our state and Nation but of the Ridge. There has
been conflicting stories that the James gang stopped
at where the Van Horn-Colsch farm is today to get a
bit to eat.
The church and its growing parish, like other
communities, witnessed all the events that molded and
formed this state and nation. From the early
settlements, the Civil War, the turn of two centuries
with the wars, depressions, achievements in science
and the growing pains and successes of this country,
these were also embraced and witnessed. People have
come and gone but this church is still here, still
witnessing, still a reminder to future generations
who wish to stop and reflect on what made our past.
Those fingers of God, funnel clouds from the sky have
danced and sidestepped this rock testament from the
past. The great droughts of 1864-1865, 1934, 1936 and
1988-1989, with the floods of 1993 and 1941 and the
many winter blizzards have affected the people of
this parish with St. John the Baptist Church the sole
witness still standing.
Yet, this parish community united and gathered, in
good times and bad. The dances, card parties, social
gatherings and prayer vigils united this neighborhood
community. The church confines were a beacon, a
gathering point that defined and strengthens the
fibers of home and community. When those fibers are
weakened, then the state of affairs for civilization
are in dire straits.
Some have called this an empty old barn with little
understanding that if one has no past, you cannot
move on from the present to the future. With the
cacophony of everyday life, the nuances and
interruptions of living, it should be a prerequisite
of a people to have something tangible, something
physical to fall back on if one wishes to find
meaning and purpose. Yes, you may have your faith but
with a building, a church, there is that physical tie
in to reinforce that faith, to reacquaint and
reinforce ones spiritual needs. A church as old as
St. John the Baptist is that fulcrum to achieve that
reinforcement as well as that reminder that there
were others in the past with those same needs and
St. John the Baptist Church is not only a building
but also that constant that ties the past with the
present. If one thinks this is not important, one
only needs to look at the present situation. A
placid, bucolic rural community has become a hornet's
nest of anger and frustration. This is not just a
building, a building and church with a historic past,
but the last remnant that identifies this community,
heritage and faith.
Try to go and bulldoze the Wailing Wall, the Dome on
the Rock or the Alamo and see how far you get. These
stone structures are not historic buildings alone but
that intangible that stirs the passions of people.
They are the physical embodiment of the moral,
ethical canon that drives and inspires people to
achieve, to do good for oneself and for others. It
may be a building, structure, book or flag, but when
there is a symbolism, a meaning, then the importance
overshadows the physical texture and makeup.
First it was a dirt road, now it is gravel and
pavement that lead you to St. John the Baptist
Church. First it was horse and wagon, now it is the
car that one uses. First it was fire with coal or
wood, now it is electricity and nuclear power to
heat, cool and fire the industry and homes of man.
With all these changes, that rock and wood church has
been the constant, like an old friend one can always
To bulldoze this church might be a change of the
times or the commitment of a crime and travesty, the
bottom line is that the people of this community and
parish, past, present and future want to take care of
this old friend and not destroy it. The Church has to
understand that it was not established as a theocracy
of men but a family inspired by God. Otherwise, it is
no better than communism, which is, to borrow a
phrase from Lincoln, "despotism that can be
taken pure without the base alloy of hypocrisy."
If this unconscionable act is ordered by Dubuque
while under the auspices of the Vatican and completed
then it may only be fitting that one of the last
official acts were a burial. Ex-marine and retired
farmer Raphael Rea was recently laid to rest in the
cemetery that lies in front of his church of many
years. We may not only have been bidding our final
farewell to this gentleman of the parish, but in our
near future a final farewell to an old friend of the
family, St. John the Baptist Church, West Ridge.
~source of text & top photo: Waukon Standard
news article 08/16/2006, written by David M. Johnson
St John the Baptist, West Ridge,
became a closed parish in 2006. The sacramental
records are located at St. Patrick parish in
Waukon. ~Contributed by Greg Bonfiglio, August
"A Gift to St John the
Baptist on the Irish West Ridge"
Celebrating 150 years with the pioneer family
histories of Union Prairie township.
If you are interested in purchasing this book, contact Tammy Kuhn for all
of the particulars.