From weddings to chemistry class mishaps to angelic organ music, memories precious to generations of Dubuquers were shared Saturday during a reunion at a Catholic institution more than 150 years old.
Attendees of the Steeple Square event gathered around old class photos — some more than 60 years old — and reminisced about St. Mary’s, a church and school that has faded into history.
“We stand here today enjoying this beautiful structure,” John Schmidt, Steeple Square’s president, told about 130 former parishioners, students and teachers who gathered Saturday for the reunion. “It is a lasting tribute to your ancestors, the spirit of sacrifice, commitment and the human spirit.”
Sharon Williams Trenholm, 75, of Dubuque, said the building “holds a special place in our heart.”
“It was a place where you grew up around sisters, brothers, relatives,” she said.
Five generations of Trenholm’s family, beginning with her grandparents, graduated from St. Mary’s school.
“We just had a grandson get married here at the end of August, and it was the first time my kids could come back in here,” said Trenholm, part of the class of 1958. “They couldn’t even come in here for the last Mass. It was too emotional for them.”
For decades, St. Mary’s Catholic Church served as the physical, social and cultural center of a prominently German-Catholic working-class neighborhood.
It began in 1849 as Holy Trinity Parish and emerged in the late 1800s as a center for ethnic German culture and education in Dubuque, according to Steeple Square Treasurer Judy Wolf.
The church was built from 1864 to 1867. At its peak, St. Mary’s had a membership of more than 300 families, according to Steeple Square.
“It was a very rich, vibrant parish with lots of history,” Wolf said.
But in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, following an economic downturn, most of the old factories along the river either closed or moved. With the closings, many Washington Neighborhood residents moved on as well.
As a result, the congregation shrank. In 2002, St. Mary’s school closed, and in 2010, the church followed.
Today, the historic neighborhood has evolved into one with greater racial diversity, more rental units and the highest unemployment rate and lowest incomes in Dubuque, Wolf said.
In 2014, Friends of St. Mary’s launched a redevelopment plan, and over the past four years have transformed the former St. Mary’s Catholic Church campus at 15th and White streets into a community/event center, affordable apartments and a child care center.
“We were so afraid it would deteriorate,” Trenholm said. “And I think it’s the best of what it could be without being a church anymore. I think it’s just so important to have a meeting place down here ... having a community center. This is just fabulous to bring the people back. It’s very heartwarming.”
Sister Marge Staudt, 78, who taught music at St. Mary’s from 1982 to 1998, agreed.
“Instead of being mothballed, (the campus) is being put to wonderful uses,” Staudt said. “It’s a magnificent building, and anybody I’ve been with has been in total awe of this architecture and this beauty.”
Martha Wightman, 67, taught for 20 years at St. Mary’s and St. Patrick’s schools, and served as principal for six years — including the period in which the German and Irish schools consolidated.
“I can’t believe the old school is apartment buildings, because we never used to be able to get (to) the third floor without worrying about bats,” Wightman said.
One of her fondest memories of St. Mary’s was teaching a junior high chemistry class how to make hydrogen. One student, despite explicitly being told not to, placed a stopper over the test tube, “then shook it, and BOOM!” Wightman said.
“The cork hit the blackboard and cracked it,” she said.
Fortunately, she said, no one was hurt.
“Going through so many school Masses, let alone weekend Masses, let alone graduations and confirmations ... it’s home,” she said of the church. “It’s one of the two homes that I had here at St. Mary’s and St. Pat’s. I love it. I was very disappointed when it closed — when the school closed — because I had given so many years to the people of St. Mary’s and St. Pat’s. It was just wonderful, and I miss them very much.”