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GALLAGHER: Maryhill church site becomes a shrine

GALLAGHER: Maryhill church site becomes a shrine

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MARYHILL, Iowa | Straight-line winds of 95 mph destroyed Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church here on Aug. 1, 2006.

The wooden structure, built for $14,000 in 1905, served this Cherokee County farm community for 101 years.

It was supposed to serve as a wedding site for Rachel Corzilius and Chris Ruskamp five days later. I found the bride in tears the day after the storm. Her wedding dress remained inside the basement, as was one wedding candelabra. We could see them amid wayward piles of lumber and shattered glass.

Family members extricated the dress, had it dry-cleaned in nearby Storm Lake. Two boys crawled through wreckage to retrieve the candelabra.

Sadly, the church couldn't be saved. Bishop R. Walker Nickless of the Diocese of Sioux City announced three months later the church would not be rebuilt, a decision he called "the most difficult experience I have had to confront since my ordination as your bishop."

In its place, Nickless suggested, a memorial could rise at Maryhill and stand next to the cemetery, the old schoolhouse, the old nuns' convent and the former rectory where the Rev. Gene Sitzmann, a fixture here for 42 years, still resides.

Sitzmann showed me around on Tuesday, in advance of Sunday's 2 p.m. dedication of Rosary Shrine and Maryhill Parish Memorial.

This spot on the map took my breath away for its mayhem six years ago. Its beauty, creativity and attention to detail did the same this week. It is stunning.

Eight of the church's stained glass windows, valued at $300,000 at the time of the church centennial 17 years ago, have been restored. Four illuminate the new Maryhill Prayer Tower, a cement block structure topped with a belfry replicated from the old church.

(Two of the windows are at Trinity Heights in Sioux City, a third is at Sioux City Fire Station No. 4, at 3109 Dearborn Blvd., and the fourth shines at new Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Ida Grove, Iowa.)

Leading into the Prayer Tower is a Rosary Shrine that invites guests to walk the rosary. The church's original cornerstone, laid in 1904, serves as the rosary medallion. In the middle of the rosary is Our Lady of the Fields Shrine, complete with small plantings of soybeans, wheat and corn.

"We've had difficulty getting the corn to grow this summer," Sitzmann observed while running his hand over the stunted plants.

"Been a lot of that around here this year," I responded.

Weather dominated the storyline six years ago, as seen in newspaper clippings displayed in the Maryhill Welcome Center and Treasury/Museum. You can read how Sitzmann heard the storm approach before rushing to shelter in the rectory basement.

The storm affected the 91 families of this congregation, not only for their church but, for many, their livelihood. Much of the corn and soybean crop that year, like this church, never stood again.

It prompted Gracie Scott, then 8, to send Sitzmann a letter. "Hey Father," she wrote, "I'm sorry that Maryhill can't be rebuilt. I can't get it off my mind. PS - I hope this picture refreshes your memories."

She attached her drawing of the church, artwork that now has a place in the Treasury/Museum, along with items like the 1905 Maryhill baseball team photo, shots of the church's tug-of-war teams and a 1949 parish ledger showing income of $13,246.34 against expenses of $8,684.07.

Studying numbers, I realize much has changed. There are fewer priests available and fewer families who call Maryhill home, reasons that shaped Nickless' difficult decision.

Celebrating Mass at Cherokee three weeks after the storm, Nickless noted that any church is more than a building. He gave thanks for those who reached out to this parish in its time of tragedy.

And for those who were left, he said, "we pray for wisdom and guidance so that good things may continue to happen."

Following my tour on Tuesday, I caught up with the teary-eyed bride-to-be I had met six years ago this week.

"We're still married!" Rachel said with a laugh as I fumbled for a way to ask my obvious question.

The couple, now at home in Sergeant Bluff, Iowa, celebrated their sixth anniversary on Sunday.

We talked about the storm and their wedding, which was moved to Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Cherokee. The dress was fine. So was the candelabra.

The couple? Fine too. But they're now three. A young voice on the phone kept trying to interrupt, telling me as much.

"That's Adelynn, our 2-year-old," Rachel told me. "She just got up from a nap."


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