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Essay

My neighbors’ stories

By December 10, 2021 3 Comments
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Men, women, and children huddled in covered wagons crossing endless prairie seem to beckon all by themselves some hovering, mounted Native war parties up on a rise–see ’em?–a gang of warriors aboard nervous pintos, bows out or maybe a feathered lance or rusty carbine in their hands.

In Iowa, forget it. The Ioways left the territory way back in 1824; the Sac and Fox were in Kansas by 1845. The Iowa indigenous weren’t a danger to wagon trains through Iowa, not by a long shot. Real danger lurked where creeks crossed the rutted paths because rowdy prairie rivers cut rigid cliff banks that required chains and ropes and engineering feats, not to mention brute strength, for those wagons to conquer. Rivers were downright scary.

I can’t help but think that having to cross those rivers established at least the outline of the sweet saga of northwest Iowa’s Luxembourgians, our neighbors down the road, by creating a setting for the heart of what might be their favorite story. It wasn’t the statue itself, the image of Mary, mother of Jesus, and our Lord, the very statue that today stands in the entry way of a little Catholic School, in Alton. The blessed statue is beautiful, not because it’s meticulously rendered: if you want magnificence, go to Rome, not Alton. It’s beauty is its story.

Obviously, it’s not rare. That a people so devotedly Roman Catholic would own and adore a statue of Mary, Mother of Jesus, their own Madonna and Child, is not news. Nothing my Dutch Calvinist childhood taught me made the Catholics so, well, “Catholic” as their adoration of Mary. Every morning after Don McNeill, holy rosaries were prayed in unison on local radio–“Holy Mary, full of grace, blessed art thou among women.” “Vain repetitions” my dad called it, using his own referenced biblical language. Mom just turned down the volume for a while.

What’s so blessed about the school’s own Mother and Child is the history of its own adoration. In 1870, when 38 pioneers left St. Donatus, Iowa, just south of Dubuque, they took the sculpture with them. The story here may get a little warm-hearted, but the way they like to tell it is almost certainly indisputable. On the long and arduous passage west, all the way across the prairie, one of those pioneers, usually a Mrs. made darn sure she was holding the sculpture–and it’s not tiny. When crossing streams specifically, the job was treacherous. Wrapped it in a blanket, people say, maybe a buffalo hide, those women carried it down the muddy banks and through deep waters. 

That’s the story they like to tell themselves and anyone else who’ll listen–how the Holy Mother and Child came all the way out here so preciously; and how, today, you can still see that blessed sculpture if you just take a step in the door at little Spaulding Catholic. 

Why blue? Tradition goes back to the Bible, where the people of Israel are told to wear blue. But if the Bible doesn’t provide good not enough reason, believers have for centuries associated blue with mystery and purity, the color of the sky’s transcendence. I can’t imagine my parents knew any of that. 

So the story goes that the this particular Madonna and Child came with the people all the way to the northwest corner of the state, at times being held up front in the very first of those ox-drawn wagons, as if the entire trip was pilgrimage, or, better yet, a processional in fine Roman Catholic tradition. All the way across the state.

One of the pioneers who came west was the son of the sculptor, I was told, the man who likely finished it in the old country to fulfill a requirement of the guild he wanted to be part of. It was made from wood shavings, and glue created from the bones of animals, I’m told. When the apprentice came to America in 1847, he brought that sculpture with, and, 23 years later, when his son boarded one of those ox-drawn carts, that son made sure his father’s work came along.

My people, just down the road, would have considered the whole business bizarre Catholic silliness, like fish on Friday. In 1960, when I was 12 years old, I listened to my uncle hold forth from the pulpit of our church on the danger America would face should Kennedy the Catholic become President of these United States. No so long ago, in England, worshippers in Falmouth were shocked to see President Biden and his wife enter the sanctuary for mass before the last day of a summit. There he was.

Last November, I don’t know anyone who said anything about the man’s devout Catholicism.

And me? I llke the story of the school’s statue, admire it, even adore it, in my own Protestant way. Just imagine–there are a dozen wagons lined up, one behind another–maybe more, in fact, all of them behind huge, double-yoked oxen, plodding along on a prairie ground of long grasses and native flowers tall as the beds of the wagons. 

And in the very first one there’s a woman–or a boy maybe–whose arms are tightly wrapped around a statue he holds like a body across his lap, a blanket around her, as if some insulation was most certainly required. 

That’s the way they cross those rowdy rivers and all that open land.

That’s a wonderful story, greatly worthy of our adoration.

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.

3 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Beautiful.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Another thoughtful story and a beautiful statue made more precious by the history.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Re Catholic influence in American culture: Our homestead in Chicago’s southwest suburbia adjoins St Alexander’s parish, highly Irish-influenced, witnessed by the bronze statue trifecta grouping of Sts Patrick, Brendan, and Bridgid, and by the solitary bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace” in the parking lot for funeral processions. The church bells ring on the Catholic daily schedule, and the electronic carillon features a song, typically “Morning Has Broken” early, “God Be With You” late, and more-Catholic liturgical chant-style tunes in between. Tunes change seasonally; what often gives a double-take response from me while doing yardwork is to hear a Protestant-heritage song, such as “Come Thou Fount,” “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” or even “A Mighty Fortress.” Ironically some years ago a group within and without the parish was all ruffled about the prospect of a Muslim community establishing a mosque in a vacant church building; the most shrill voices claimed that the neighborhood would have to endure the periodic Islamic call to prayer from their loudspeakers . . . The mosque located elsewhere, even after the dissenters were roundly and ecumenically scolded by Fr. Crosby and by the village mayor, a Dutch CRC member.

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