St. Anthony of Padua Chapel

Claiming to be the "Smallest Church in the World", St. Anthony of Padua Chapel near Festina seats eight people.

Photos by Connie Street 2005

Inside the "Smallest Church in the World" are Catholic statuary and four pews that seat two persons each. Stained glass windows honor early family members. This cabin was originally part of the Indian Agency and stood about one mile southwest of its present location at the St. Anthony church. It was used as a dwelling by the  F.J. Huber family when they arrived in 1849.

Built 1885-86, St. Anthony of Padua Chapel by the Johann Gaertner family is located southwest of Festina in Winneshiek County, Iowa. The tiny privately owned chapel is open to the public at no cost during daylight hours. The cemetery is behind the chapel and a restored log cabin use by the Huber family in 1849 is also located on the grounds.

In 1790s France, 16-year-old Johann Gaertner was drafted into the French Army under Napoleon Bonaparte. Johann's mother was very fearful that her son would become a war casualty and made a promise that on her son's safe arrival home from the war, she would build a chapel in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but she was unable to fulfill her promise.

Later, Johann Gaertner moved to America and lived in Oldenberg, Indiana. While visiting in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1848, Gaertner heard about the country around Fort Atkinson, Iowa, and decided to explore it for possible future settlement.  Gaertner and two friends, George Bachet and Anton Stadel, traveled by boat down the Ohio River and up the Mississippi River to Dubuque, Iowa. They then walked 100 miles to Fort Atkinson, arriving on October 5, 1848. They found one settler, Gottlieb Krumm, living in the region about one half-mile south of the fort. The Winnebago Indians who had lived a the fort had been removed from the northeast Iowa region that year, so the land was open to white settlement for the first time.

Gaertner and his friends returned to Indiana to spread the word and in the spring of 1849 the families of George Bachel, Frank Joseph Huber, Anton Stadel, Jacob Rausch, Joseph Spielman, and Andrew Meyer left Indiana to settle in northeast Iowa. They made their homes in the former "neutral ground" that had been occupied by the Winnebago Indians from 1840-1848. This land was purchased from the Winnebago by the U. S. government through its agents Rice and Brisbois of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Several small log buildings were still standing when the Indiana settlers arrived. In 1851, Johann Gaertner and his family arrived in the area.

The settlers built a small log church called St. Mary's on the present site of the St. Anthony's Chapel. Services were held monthly in the church from September 1849 until late 1853, when the log church was destroyed by fire. The church was not rebuilt and the site became known as Old Mission.

Johann Gaertner knew about the promise his mother had made and had repeated it many times to his own children. One day in 1885 Johann, his daughter Mary Ann and his son-in-law Frank Joseph Huber visited the old churchyard at Old Mission, Iowa. Mary Ann told her father the site would be a good place to build the chapel to fulfill his mother's promis.

Plans were immediately begun and the chapel was built the same year. Neighbors helped quarry the stones at Snake Hollow. Joseph Spielman donated $20 toward a bell and Johann Gaertner, then 92 years old, donated $75 to pay for the wood used in building the chapel. Frank Joseph and Mary Ann Huber paid the balance. The chapel dedication took place in 1886. The following June, Johann Gaertner died. On Nov. 23, 1887, Frank Joseph Huber died. Mary Ann carried along the work of maintaining the chapel. In 1888 she had the vestibule added with a 40-feet-high belfry. In 1903, stained glass windows were installed, donated by Mary Ann Huber. The chapel proper is 14-feet by 20-feet, the belfry is 40 feet high, and the chapel seats eight people. In the summer of 1924, St. Anthony's Chapel Association, composed of 65 grandchildren of Marie Ann Huber, was formed for the purpose of maintaining the chapel. Each year, on the Sunday closest to June 13, the feast of St. Anthony of Padua mass is offered on the chapel's miniature altar.

West of the church is the original 1849 cabin that was the first home of Frank Joseph and Mary Ann Huber. This home was originally located a half mile southwest of the chapel on the land that served as the Turkey River Indian Subagency. It was used by Huber descendants until 1965. The cabin was moved and restored at this site in 1996.

Fort Atkinson

Fort Atkinson was built on the banks of the Turkey River in Winneshiek County to keep the Winnebago (now known as Ho-Chunk) Indians on "Neutral Ground" (a 40-mile-wide strip of land established by the Treaty of 1830) after their removal from Wisconsin in 1840, and to provide protection for them from the Sioux, Sauk, Fox and from white intruders on Indian land. On May 31, 1840, a camp was made and named Atkinson in honor of the commanding officer in charge of the Winnebago resettlement efforts. The fort was essentially complete by the end of summer, 1842. It included 24 buildings and a stockade wall. Outside the 11-feet wall were 14 additional buildings.

Whites were banned from the neutral ground with the exception of military personnel, agency officials and one fur trapper who traded with the Indians.

On June 20, 1846, the regular army troops were pulled out of Fort Atkinson to fight in the war with Mexico. The Winnebago Tribe was removed from Iowa just as they had been from Wisconsin in 1848. With their removal from Iowa, there was no longer a reason for Fort Atkinson and it was closed in 1849.

A Winnebago Indian Subagency was located five miles south of Fort Atkinson and served as the site for carrying out treaty stipulations made between the government and the Winnebagos. Annuities in the form of food and other supplies were delivered monthly to the Agency for distribution to the Indians. A school was also built to educate the Indian youth in the ways of  white culture. A model farm was also established in the same location. The Rev. Lowry, a Presbyterian minister,  was the superintendent of the Winnebago Indian school and subagent for the Agency.

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