Skip to main content
Essay

Pilgrimage

Listen To Article

Odd-looking thing, really. Its keyboard makes it a piano or organ of some sort, but it comes packaged in what looks like a suitcase far too big to carry-on, a thick black trunk that folds out to enable an entire instrument inside–if it can be called that–to be transportable, to be carried along, hither and yon. 

Don’t know if it still plays. We weren’t offered a concert. What we know is what we were told: it was found in the rectory when the last priest left, along with more than a few other treasures now on exhibit in the museum of St. Donatus Roman Catholic Church, St. Donatus, Iowa.  And we know that it belonged, heart and soul, to a school teacher named Sister Seraphica. 

It’s a stretch for me to imagine an elementary school teacher named “Sister Seraphica,” but then I wasn’t raised Catholic or attend a Catholic school. My own roots plunge so deeply into the Reformation that, shameful as it is, it’s difficult for me to imagine any possible Sister Seraphica who is not a horrifying disciplinarian, an actual terror, maybe even a closet abuser. Reading too much Louise Erdrich doesn’t help.

But this strange organ-to-go is there in the church museum because Sister Seraphica was so admired by her kids, who heard her muse often about wishing she had an organ. Without her knowing a thing about their designs, entirely on their own, the kids found this portable organ, gathered the shekels, bought it, and presented it to her at a memorable moment, I’m sure, a moment exceedingly precious to Sister Seraphica of St. Donatus Parish.

Here’s the story. That the strange organ-in-a-suitcase was in church one day during a confirmation when suddenly and inexplicably one of the basement furnaces exploded with such heft the floor actually heaved beneath people’s feet. Worshippers fearfully left the sanctuary, or so said our museum guide. After the men checked out what needed to be checked downstairs, they let the people back in, only to discover that one blessed soul in the assembly had not left the building–yes, Sister Seraphica, hung on and told the men, flush with resolve, that after all the hard work her wonderful students had gone through to get that beloved instrument, rather than leave it behind, she had decided to go with it. It was just that simple.

That’s a good museum story, really, a tale that get spun so frequently its edges don’t get worn as much as gold-leafed. But there it stands, this organ-in-a-trunk, adorned with sheet music whose language may well be imperiled, Luxembourgian, from a country so small that the whole kingdom would just about fit into the county where I live, as do more than a few descendants of the very Luxembourgian immigrants who first settled St. Donatus in 1838, and those who left St. Donatus in ox-carts that took them, ploddingly, all the way across the state in 1870.

The cemetery behind the St. Donatus church has stunning statuary, but the signage guides you up and through a very rare outdoor rendering of the Stations of the Cross, brick alcoves built up against the steep river bluff during the Civil War. It’s not an easy stretch of ground to pilgrim, but then I would guess it’s not supposed to be. You step carefully up the steep side of the hill, past all fourteen stations, each with a Parisian lithograph featuring an event from Good Friday, until you get up top to what they call the Pieta Chapel, built–if you can believe it–in 1885 and modeled after the Chapel du Bilchen in Vianden, in, you guessed it, Luxembourg.

And there it is–the pieta. Amazing, both literally and figuratively, it takes your breath away because you have to go some to get there, all of it uphill. You may lug a cross along–a few are available at the trail head–but I chose not to. Still, having arrived, my sweat-soaked shirt was penance enough, or so my stubborn Protestant mind judged. But it’s beautiful really, a precious place.

For the record, here’s a photo I took myself just inside the front doors one sunny morning in Rome. It’s Michaelangelo’s Pieta, at St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome.

The setting is different, far different; and look closely–Jesus seems more of a child, frail and beaten, far less buff in the master’s rendition, even faint, death-like because he is. In St. Peters, Mary appears gargantuan, Jesus much less a man, famous and eccentric characteristics of the world’s most famous pieta, one of its greatest sculptures. The details of the cloth are finer, endless yards of fabric rolling up. High above the historic village of St. Donatus, the Pieta Chapel in the woods high on the bluff features what seems distant cousins.

I’ve stood before both, admired them, one of them a stunning work of art, the other a work of stunning devotion. I’ve loved them both, one just inside the massive doors of the world’s most famous basilica, each day courting early-morning pilgrims by the thousands; and the other here in a small, gated chapel, alone atop a sharply rising hill that overlooks an emerald valley as wide as the horizon, just a few miles from the Mississippi, an old church that no longer has the numbers, which makes its very existence sketchy. 

Honestly, this hard-core son of the Reformation loved ’em, loved ’em both. 

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

7 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    As is right. Thank you.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    “Spoken Luxembourgish is relatively hard to understand for speakers of German who are generally not familiar with Moselle Franconian dialects (or at least other West Central German dialects). However, they can usually read the language to some degree.”

  • Andrew Rienstra says:

    Delightful Jim! Your comments always bring me back to days in Wisconsin, your wonderful family, and stories your grandfather told around our family dinner table. Today’s story connects with a statue I have of Michaelangelo’s Pieta on the front ledge of my apartment in thie NJ senior complex. It is a gift from a statue store owner and has an interesting personal history, It also generates much comment from neighbors. Thanks for great stories!

  • Diana Walker says:

    The Pieta graced the softly lit stage at the 1964-65 World’s Fair. In Queens. Lines of people who came to see serpentined endlessly. The curious. The faithful. Young and old.
    Last week I was at the very same World’s Fair site. It is now a park and a zoo for children. While lovely, it is a blessed memory when Michaelangelo came to Queens.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Jim, I was a Roman Catholic in my younger years and attended a Catholic elementary school and I had many nuns who tried to be examples of Christ. They were funny and knowledgeable about our Lord and the world. It is from that life I chose to be a teacher. No horrifying disciplinarians and no terror was part of my nine years in Catholic school. I was not disciplined unless I needed to be and I needed it only a very few times.

  • Christopher Poest says:

    Delightful as always, Jim. I didn’t make it inside Chapel du Bilchen, but Vianden is a beautifully picturesque town if you ever find yourself in Luxembourg.

Leave a Reply