Copyright 2004 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday May 1, 2004 

Postcard 242: The Congregational Neighborhood

 congretional neighborhood

This image from about 1880 centers on the 1868 Congregational Church, with St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church
 at right. St. Mary’s steeple was built in 1872, and a building at left was demolished in 1892, thus helping date the photo. 
Enhanced image from Congregational archives courtesy of John Johnson.


By Bob Hibbs


Presbyterians first stood in the way, then provided the impetus to formation of “The Congregational Church of Iowa City,” which now adds a “United Church of Christ” denominational tag below its original name.

During the early 19th century, eastern Congregationalists believed their church couldn’t survive outside New England, and that Presbyterian churches were suited to new communities. “Congregational pastors advised their people moving west to become Presbyterians,” writes Joseph Heffner in his 1916 local Congregational history.

Only First Presbyterian Church survives now, but three Presbyterian churches were born in 1840s Iowa City, forestalling early appearance of a Congregational group, except for the Welsh Church south of Iowa City in 1846.

But, local Congregationalists are survivors and a bit like the proverbial tortoise – slowly and steadily, their towering 1869 downtown house of worship has become among the oldest surviving local church edifices still in regular Sunday use. It’s well maintained and appointed.

It was erected for $26,606 on two lots purchased for a little more than $1,000 each from the historic Berryhill and Reno families. Architect Gurden Randall earned $650. Administrative space was added in 1924 and classrooms during 1958.

The “Old Brick” church a block north was completed in 1865 by the Presbyterians, but it no longer houses regular worship. The African Methodist Episcopal congregation began meeting in 1868, but exact date of its first building remains unclear.

Among vintage local churches, St. Mary’s Roman Catholic also came in 1869 without its steeple, Trinity Episcopal in 1871 and St. Patrick’s Catholic in 1879.

As with other denominations, the Congregationalists predate their edifice. They first organized in 1856, but abandoned that “First” entity and joined a larger group of “New School” Presbyterians in forming today’s surviving congregation in 1866. There were 51 charter members, compared to more than 300 actives today.

The Presbyterians left their 1845 stone church along the south face of Burlington Street mid-block between Clinton and Capitol streets as long declining fortunes forced change. This era also witnessed the Iowa capital moved to Des Moines in 1857, the same year a financial panic hit as devastatingly as the 1930s Great Depression.

Among items stone church members had liquidated was their bell, sold in 1855 to a nascent University of Iowa for its first home, the Mechanics Academy on Linn Street. This bell has been confused with others hung in Old Capitol, although it never rang there. It’s now stored in the basement of the UI athletics museum.

A devastating early blow to local Congregationalists came with lost support of the John Teesdale family with its move to Des Moines as state government was relocated. Teesdale had edited the respected Iowa City Republican newspaper, and there founded what now is the Des Moines Register.

Today’s dramatically different Congregational Church neighborhood is evidenced by an 1880-era image.

A three-story building at the left edge housed the Iowa City Academy beginning in 1878. Founded in 1868 by William McClain in Market Hall on a Dubuque-Iowa Avenue corner, the academy was sold to Amos and Herman Hiatt, who moved it to this site. The property was sold the St. Mary’s in 1905.

The third building from the corner – which had housed St. Joseph’s Institute – was demolished in 1892 after St. Joseph’s was closed to make way for St. Mary’s elementary. The corner two buildings were demolished in 1911 to make way for St. Mary’s High. The site now serves the Catholic Newman Center.

During a disastrous 1894 hail storm, the Congregational Church escaped damage while nearby South Hall on Pentacrest lost 190 panes of glass from its many windows. The Coldren Opera House and many other downtown buildings suffered similar damage.

Perhaps the Congregationalists know something the rest of us are missing.

Next Saturday: Presbyterians – A Stormy Bunch.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and other historic ephemera and researches history related to them. 

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