Churches can be some of the most breathtaking structures around. Regardless of your faith (or lack thereof), it’s easy to admire these feats of architecture and engineering. And while it’s typically European countries that are associated with the most jaw-dropping historical churches, the state of Iowa has a remarkable number of impeccable old churches that are worthy of your attention. From tiny frontier chapels to massive Gothic Revival churches to working monasteries, Iowa’s old churches certainly have the power to amaze, astonish and inspire.
Immaculate Conception Church
Finished in 1870, the current Immaculate Conception Church at Wexford is the third church constructed on this site – and it’s rumored to be the oldest Catholic church site from here to Minnesota. The setting, above the Allamakee County Valley, is just beautiful, with woods and a lovely stream nearby. When you step inside, take some time to explore the frame on the back wall, which shows a list of the passengers who sailed on the Ticonderoga from Liverpool to New Orleans in 1850; many of these newcomers settled here and built the original church on the site. You can contact the office to arrange a tour of the church.
Tiny Lima Church, in Wadena, was built in 1882 by settlers from Wales, Scotland, and England. It’s a modest church, with simple décor and movable pews, and an old piano still stands in a corner. You’ll find four stained glass windows here that brighten this unassuming but charming church – look at the bottom of the windows to see the names of the church founders. This is a church you’ll enjoy traveling to. The road here leads through idyllic valleys full of woodlands and fields, and every curve in the road reveals a new countryside delight. Visit in the fall to take advantage of the gorgeous leaf colors, and stay for the Lima Leaf Day Festival.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Des Moines
A beautiful, castle-like, ivy-covered building, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Des Moines was built in the 1850s in the Gothic Revival style. It has been added to over the years, and the tower now boasts a 25-carillon bell. The church is beautiful inside and out, but even better, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, thanks to its architectural heritage.
It’s also one of only three churches designed by the firm Foster & Liebbe that still stands. Come for a visit, and marvel at the buttresses, Gothic arches, and stained glass windows – you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to the Middle Ages!
Basilica of St. Francis Xavier
Another Iowa church that is on the National Register of Historic Places is the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, in Dyersville. This is one magnificent building! It was built in the 1880s and was given the status of a Minor Basilica in the 1950s. The church is easy to spot with its two soaring spires, which can be seen from miles away (and are reportedly used as landmarks by pilots!). Check out the gorgeous glass windows – there are more than 60 of them – and the original frescoes from over 100 years ago. The church also features a special bell (Tintinnabulum) and umbrella (Umbraculum) that wait patiently for a visit from the Pope, should it ever occur.
Originally built in 1860 by Czech immigrants who settled in the area, Spillville’s Saint Wenceslaus is the oldest Czech Catholic church in all of America. It was upgraded over the years (in the 1860s, a bell tower was built, and in 1873, the transept and sanctuary were finished), and one of the main attractions today is the original pipe organ. It dates back to 1876, and its claim to fame is the fact that it was played by Antonin Dvorak, the famed Czech composer. Dvorak was visiting relatives in 1893 and played the organ during Mass.
Little Brown Church in the Vale
Blink, and you’ll miss it, which would be a shame, because the diminutive and adorably named Little Brown Church is a gem! Construction began in 1860 in a frontier town named Bradford, and because of the Civil War, it wasn’t completed until four years later. It still looks much as you might imagine a frontier church would look. It might be small, but it has been the source of a lot of happiness over the years – more than 75,000 couples have tied the knot at this beautiful spot. A few years before the church was built, a visiting music teacher fell in love with this charming valley spot and wrote a song entitled “The Church in the Wildwood”, though there was as yet no church there. It later became the signature song the church, and you can still hear it played today. Tours are available, and all are welcome to Sunday service.
New Melleray Abbey
New Melleray Abbey was founded in Peosta in 1849 by Roman Catholic monks from Ireland. The stunning stone building you see today was built at the end of the Civil War, based on the Medieval Gothic style. It’s the kind of grand, historical building you’d expect to see in the UK, but certainly not in Iowa! Which makes it all the more amazing, and definitely worth a visit. On-site, there’s a gift shop, organic garden, liturgy, guest house, and monastic center, and you can visit to admire the impressive architecture or watch the monks hard at work making hand-crafted caskets.