IAGenWeb Project - Allamakee co. Church records
updated 09/17/2012

St. John the Baptist Catholic Church,
West Ridge, Union Prairie twp.

St. John the Baptist - 'Waukon Standard' photo

photograph by Geraldine Wester, 2011
Historical Marker at St. John the Baptist

St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, West Ridge, was built ca.1862 by Irish Settlers. An active parish until 1991, it is now an Oratory.



The Loss of an Old Friend
Parishioners await the fate of St. John the Baptist, West Ridge
by David M. Johnson

Once more the hot, dry summer winds were blowing against the cool stone walls of my old friend. The searing heat from the overhead sun bounced off the aging steeple, its crown that towered above the surrounding trees and fields. One more summer before a possible sentence of death in the fall may end this venerable sentinel on the ridge.

No more seasons experienced, no more rain, snow or sunshine to be enjoyed. There would be no more gathering of families, friends or neighbors within its solid, aging walls and under its protecting wood and rafters. Successions of generations have been witnessed by my old friend; the births, the aging and the deaths. My old friend welcomed the pride and joy of the newborns of the many baptisms. The more children that came through its doors meant that families would share their lives, the ups and downs, the worries and heartaches, the victories and successes that human life has to offer.

The celebrations of each marriage with the many festivals and holy days were shared and enjoyed within its protective, silent stone. Its shadows absorbed the grief and sorrow when one of its own finally yielded to the night of life, their souls and bodies sharing the very ground that lay within reach of this vigilant witness of life and death.

On this beautiful ridge of northeast Iowa sits not only a friend of mine but a friend to many a farmer, teacher, storekeeper, doctor and lawyer. All walks of life that make Iowa live and breathe have passed in and out of its arched stone doorway. They all have left a little bit of themselves as well have taken a footprint of time to be cherished when times allow reflection. This building, this House of God, if given the opportunity could speak volumes about the many lives it has touched. But alas, its future appears bleak.

St. John the Baptist Catholic Church of West Ridge is another victim of the changing times. With the shortage of Catholic priests in the United States, it has become a painful decision for many a bishop and parish priest to close the churches that dot the landscape of this great country. The decision for West Ridge is not unique, for the future of St. John the Baptist is also the future of the Catholic churches of Hanover, Dorchester, Cherry Mound, Wexford, New Albin and Harpers Ferry.

The parish of Lycurgus was closed this past July. The members of St. John the Baptist have accepted the inevitable with its closing, it's the decision of the Diocese of Dubuque with what to do with the buildings that have alarmed this once passive, peaceful people. Not high winds, fire or the afflictions of time will do in this landmark of the prairie, but the bulldozer ordered by the Church hierarchy that will prey upon its stone walls.

The reverence shown to it by its builders and family of ancestors that followed will be replaced with zeal to bring it down. It is almost ironic that the same enthusiasm to build would be the same enthusiasm to destroy. What must those pioneer spirits be thinking? A house where they and their children and grandchildren could physically, spiritually and mentally reach out to a Supreme Being they so fervently loved and believed in would so cavalierly be treated. The past of this simple but grand building was different.

West Ridge is just one of many picturesque settings and rural communities found in Allamakee County. Thanks to the continental glaciers and ice sheets of ancient times, we have the hills, valleys and streams that were formed and define the Ridge. With the passing and moving of the Ioways, Sac and Fox, Winnebago and Sioux tribes, the Europeans began settlement.

The first settlers in West Ridge were, interestingly, some of the first settlers in Union Prairie Township and Allamakee County. John Magner, William Rea, Pat, John and Dan Curtin are a few of the early pioneers who planted their Irish roots in this inviting Iowa soil. When you pass over the names in the early records, Rea, Curtin, Magner, Liddiard, O'Neil, Ryan, Baxter, Farley and Drew, you recognize these names because their ancestors still live here, 150 years later. With this dominant Irish heritage, there were later the sprinkling of the Germans, Norwegians and Swedes, Berns, Colsch, Onsager, Snitker and Johnson with the Marsden, Urell, Mahoney, Mellick and McMorrow families adding seasoning to this mix.

West Ridge is typical Iowa, typical Middle America. There was a strong Catholic faith to go along with this Irish culture and a need for a building to worship. Groundwork was laid in 1860 for a church building, ten years after the first mass was celebrated in a West Ridge home. A lot for the cemetery and a lot for the church were purchased, for twenty dollars, by Bishop Clement Smyth, with the deed for the property later sold back to the parish. With the rock quarried from the William Rea farm, the construction began in 1861.

It was not until 1863 that St. John the Baptist Church was completed because Union Prairie #2 school, the area's local one-room country school was built between starting and finishing the church project. It was not until 1891 when the parish had its first resident priest, Father Edmund Ryan from Ireland. Father Ryan built a residence, which later evolved into several other buildings for chickens, protection for the horses of the parishioners and a church hall in 1900.

In November 1911, the church was formally incorporated under the charge of Father F. McCullough. The laymen directors were Francis Drew and David O'Brien. In 1939, St. John the Baptist parish was made a mission parish with it later being designated an oratory in 1991. Before the decision to close St. John the Baptist, it was believed to be the third oldest church still in use in the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

Like other early pioneer settlements, the local church was not the only identifying landmark or hub of activity. This old church witnessed, in its younger days, a sawmill on nearby Coon Creek. Started in 1859, it was in operation near where the Regi Tysland home is today. Like Hanover, Canoe and Sattre, West Ridge had a store. The "Hale Store" was in operation where the Cletus Pladsen farm now lies. In 1893 a post office called Connor was established at the house of Jeremiah Ryan, now owned by the Baxter family. Jeremiah was the postmaster until the establishment of rural free delivery, thus disbanding the post office.

Education was as important to the people as well as their faith. By 1886 in Union Prairie #2, #5 and #8, lying in between Coon Creek to the south and the Upper Iowa River and Patterson Creek to the north and west of the church, the children of the parish and non-Catholic residents were given the famous one-room country school education.

If the Milwaukee Railroad had not suddenly backed off, a railroad would have been a common sight seen from the church. In 1883 and 1884 a narrow gauge grade, later upgraded to standard gauge, was constructed to establish an extension from Waukon to Decorah. It is believed that the threat of competing interests forced the Milwaukee to build. With the withering interest by other railroads before the completion of the line, Milwaukee determined it did not need the extension and withdrew its support in finishing the railroad. The grade extension can still be seen along the banks of Coon Creek.

With the construction firmly established by 1862, St. John the Baptist witnessed not only the growing of the local families but the State and Nation as well. The beginning of the American Civil War was a constant topic and worrying interest of the farm families attempting to scratch out a living in this new land.

Although the Plains Indians were farther to the north and west, when Lincoln sent General Pope, the defeated Union commander at Second Bull Run, to Minnesota to squash a Sioux uprising, residents were made uneasy. Legend has it that several families were ready to move to safer confines if the conflict moved further south. The Indian has always been in the mix of this area.

About four miles to the west of St. John the Baptist Church, across the Winneshiek -Allamakee County line, lies a prominent natural landmark where Coon Creek Road crosses Trout River and a short distance from the Upper Iowa River. Captain Nathan Boone, the son of Daniel Boone, used a rock cliff as a surveying landmark while establishing the 1825 Neutral Line. Boone was the U.S. Deputy Surveyor responsible for the government's attempts to separate the Winnebago from the Sioux.

As the Indian nations were a part of our expansion but so were the outlaw's part of this history of not only our state and Nation but of the Ridge. There has been conflicting stories that the James gang stopped at where the Van Horn-Colsch farm is today to get a bit to eat.

The church and its growing parish, like other communities, witnessed all the events that molded and formed this state and nation. From the early settlements, the Civil War, the turn of two centuries with the wars, depressions, achievements in science and the growing pains and successes of this country, these were also embraced and witnessed. People have come and gone but this church is still here, still witnessing, still a reminder to future generations who wish to stop and reflect on what made our past.

Those fingers of God, funnel clouds from the sky have danced and sidestepped this rock testament from the past. The great droughts of 1864-1865, 1934, 1936 and 1988-1989, with the floods of 1993 and 1941 and the many winter blizzards have affected the people of this parish with St. John the Baptist Church the sole witness still standing.

Yet, this parish community united and gathered, in good times and bad. The dances, card parties, social gatherings and prayer vigils united this neighborhood community. The church confines were a beacon, a gathering point that defined and strengthens the fibers of home and community. When those fibers are weakened, then the state of affairs for civilization are in dire straits.

Some have called this an empty old barn with little understanding that if one has no past, you cannot move on from the present to the future. With the cacophony of everyday life, the nuances and interruptions of living, it should be a prerequisite of a people to have something tangible, something physical to fall back on if one wishes to find meaning and purpose. Yes, you may have your faith but with a building, a church, there is that physical tie in to reinforce that faith, to reacquaint and reinforce ones spiritual needs. A church as old as St. John the Baptist is that fulcrum to achieve that reinforcement as well as that reminder that there were others in the past with those same needs and desires.

St. John the Baptist Church is not only a building but also that constant that ties the past with the present. If one thinks this is not important, one only needs to look at the present situation. A placid, bucolic rural community has become a hornet's nest of anger and frustration. This is not just a building, a building and church with a historic past, but the last remnant that identifies this community, heritage and faith.

Try to go and bulldoze the Wailing Wall, the Dome on the Rock or the Alamo and see how far you get. These stone structures are not historic buildings alone but that intangible that stirs the passions of people. They are the physical embodiment of the moral, ethical canon that drives and inspires people to achieve, to do good for oneself and for others. It may be a building, structure, book or flag, but when there is a symbolism, a meaning, then the importance overshadows the physical texture and makeup.

First it was a dirt road, now it is gravel and pavement that lead you to St. John the Baptist Church. First it was horse and wagon, now it is the car that one uses. First it was fire with coal or wood, now it is electricity and nuclear power to heat, cool and fire the industry and homes of man. With all these changes, that rock and wood church has been the constant, like an old friend one can always turn to.

To bulldoze this church might be a change of the times or the commitment of a crime and travesty, the bottom line is that the people of this community and parish, past, present and future want to take care of this old friend and not destroy it. The Church has to understand that it was not established as a theocracy of men but a family inspired by God. Otherwise, it is no better than communism, which is, to borrow a phrase from Lincoln, "despotism that can be taken pure without the base alloy of hypocrisy."

If this unconscionable act is ordered by Dubuque while under the auspices of the Vatican and completed then it may only be fitting that one of the last official acts were a burial. Ex-marine and retired farmer Raphael Rea was recently laid to rest in the cemetery that lies in front of his church of many years. We may not only have been bidding our final farewell to this gentleman of the parish, but in our near future a final farewell to an old friend of the family, St. John the Baptist Church, West Ridge.

~source of text & top photo: Waukon Standard news article 08/16/2006, written by David M. Johnson


St John the Baptist, West Ridge, became a closed parish in 2006. The sacramental records are located at St. Patrick parish in Waukon. ~Contributed by Greg Bonfiglio, August 2011


Book Cover: "A Gift to St John the Baptist on the Irish West Ridge"

"A Gift to St John the Baptist on the Irish West Ridge"
Celebrating 150 years with the pioneer family histories of Union Prairie township.
If you are interested in purchasing this book, contact Tammy Kuhn for all of the particulars.
September 2012

St. John the Baptist church - photo taken by Sharyl Ferrall, 2004
St. John the Baptist church, autumn 2004
~photographed by Sharyl Ferrall for Allamakee co. IAGenWeb


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