Rick Roder
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History - Lizard Church



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    I wrote the following as a personal journal entry. Some friends and family asked to see it after they found I wrote of my experience. Many have related how much they enjoyed it. Chuck Offenburger, a famous Iowa journalist, reprinted the piece in a column on his website at http://www.chuckoffenburger.com. The piece gives a sense of my story-telling abilities.

    A Pilgrimage to "Lizard Church"
    By Rick Roder

    I drove through some driving rain as I approached the area of Lizard Church. I was thinking how no one but an ardent student of Catholicism in Northwest Iowa would call the Lizard Creek basin the "area of Lizard Church." After all, the dilapidated little solitary building sits several miles northwest of the large town of Fort Dodge, and a few miles west of the respectably populated town of Clare. But for me, having studied its history in depth, this trip to the former parish on the Lizard was something of a personal pilgrimage; a trip of thanks and prayer to historical core of the Irish settlement in the Upper Des Moines River Valley.

    As I drove in and out of the spotty rain showers, I reviewed the history of the settlement as I had studied and written it. Lizard Settlement had its beginnings in 1854, an extremely early year for settlement in Northwest Iowa. Hugh Collins and his traveling companion, James Hickey - both Irish Catholics - followed the North Branch of the creek, called "Was-sa-ka-pom-pa" by the Indians, out of the military settlement called Fort Dodge. They spent the winter of 1854-1855 residing in a square hole several feet deep with a roof of sticks and prairie grass. In 1855 several of their Irish compatriots followed: Michael, Patrick, Roger and Dennis Collins, Charles Kelly, John and Patrick Calligan, John and Philip Russell, Patrick and Owen McCabe, Michael Walsh, Walter Ford, James Donahue, and their families. The settlement developed at a point where the Lizard crossed from Webster County (Jackson Township) into Pocahontas County (Lizard Township), so many "firsts" were established for each county. In fact, Lizard Church was eventually built straddling the county line. (The site of Michael Collins' house, the first in Pocahontas County, is marked by a large boulder and plaque just to the north on the roadside.)

    Most Catholic historians consider it a duty to determine when the first Mass was said in a given territory. My extensive studies found that the first Mass perpetuated by Catholic pioneers in the area of the present Diocese of Sioux City was in Lizard Settlement at the home of Sylvester Griffin on August 15, 1855. Griffin's home was on the Lizard in Jackson Township of Webster County. While the first Mass was likely to have been said earlier by Jesuit missionaries (either Christian Hoecken or Jean-Pierre De Smet), the Lizard Catholics were the first to pass the information on to their descendents by word-of-mouth. They held their religion close to their hearts, and the Mass was central to their lives.

    The diocesan employee deemed responsible for the disposal of the old church had given me directions to the place during the "Pilgrimage on Wheels," a very long bike ride celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Sioux City Diocese. We got into a good-natured bantering over the proposed razing; he saying the church had to go, "the sooner the better," and I trumpeting, "If there's any place in our diocese that must be preserved for it's history, it's the Lizard!" Despite his fear that I would organize a protest, he told me, "Take the paved road westbound out of Clare. After you cross the Lizard, take the first gravel north. It'll curve back to the east and you'll see your church. You can get into the basement, but don't go in, it's an accident waiting to happen." Since I was heading eastbound toward Clare, I decided to see if I could spot Lizard Church prior to reaching the creek.

    As I drove out of a cloudburst on the Clare blacktop, my mind wandered back to another discussion about the Lizard with a priest of the diocese, Fr. Merle Kollasch, a real character. Fr. Merle said, "Oh yeah, the Lizard Church. You know, out of all the positions they have created in Sioux City at the Chancery, they are missing one of the most important: Diocesan Arsonist!" I remembered making a mental note to go see the Lizard ASAP.

    Having passed again out of the rain, up ahead I spotted a massive stand of trees-which in Iowa can only mean one thing: "stream." I took the first gravel road north-340th, I believe-and noted that it seemed to be the widest gravel road I have ever traveled. My left-hand turn had put the trees about three-quarters of a mile to my right. As I scanned for the church, I noticed a half-dozen large black blotches in the short soybeans near the trees: turkeys. Since I have not seen many wild turkeys, which Ben Franklin and I preferred as National Bird, I slowed to get a better look. Then my eyes picked up a large doe feeding at the edge of the woods. When I finally looked ahead, I saw that the road took a turn east. I was fairly confident that I was almost there.

    After curving east, I was prevented from looking ahead by a very large group of turkeys in the road. Four or five adult birds were scattering everywhere with maybe fifteen or twenty foot-tall babies ducking reluctantly into the ditch. Having cleared them safely, I looked up and my heart raced. I had arrived at the "Lizard!"

    The rain had stopped over Lizard Church and cemetery and Old Glory fluttered in a steady breeze underneath gray skies. I wasn't to understand the significance of the presence of the flag until I had started a list of the war veterans I was to visit. I turned into the driveway, which ended about fifty yards back between Lizard Church and its graveyard. The entire site was nestled in a horseshoe rim of thick trees. Ancient brick posts marked either side of the front of the property.

    Lizard Church sat two-thirds of the way to the back of the property on the left side of the driveway. My mind was racing, but three features immediately came to the forefront. Firstly, the church's wooden-framed construction was typical of nearly every early church built in the diocese; most were later replaced by more permanent stone or brick structures, more reminiscent of structures that the faithful left behind in Europe. Secondly, the stately backdrop of the church indicated an important aspect of pioneer times; wood was only to be found near rivers. Since rivers also served as foolproof guides into the trackless prairies, it was on their banks that Catholicism invariably sunk its "Western" roots. Thirdly, the front door of the church faced west, toward the gravel road. The first Lizard Church was built in 1871 as the imaginary "frontier line" advanced slowly through farming country. Appropriately, the first church faced east, toward the pioneer trail that approached it. After the original church burned in 1930, the second church was built to face the new road.

    I got out of my car and gazed up at the church building. On its front, above the door, were some faded stick-on letters and numbers, some missing: St. Patrick Catholic Church Lizard, 1871-1983. As I got my first good look, I reverently spoke aloud the common name, "Lizard Church." I could scarcely believe I was finally on land chosen by the brave Irish for the foundation of their lives of faith.

    My diocesan friend had told me that I couldn't get inside the church, so I headed for the graveyard. A sign near my car read, "This is a non-perpetual care cemetery." In defiance, it seemed, the grass was mowed and trimmed around the stones. First I headed back toward the entrance of the property, where it had appeared to me that one marker was reserved to commemorate the former parish itself. My guess was right; the stone contained engravings of the two Lizard church buildings with the years of each below them. Then followed a skeletal history of the parish: 1st Mass, August 15, 1855. Parish established May 19, 1871. Cornerstone laid July 6, 1871. Church dedicated June 1872. Destroyed by fire March 29, 1930. New church dedicated October 22, 1930. Last Mass August 15, 1984. I had not realized that the last Mass was said on the same date as the first.

    I proceeded into the area of the graves. My eyes were drawn to several large and ancient fir trees at the edge of the cemetery, to some moss-covered plain stone markers that were mostly tipped over. I had been to enough cemeteries to know where to find the "ancient" history. Along the way I passed markers for people who had died in the 1990's. The monument for Catherine Condon indicated that people were buried here as recently as the year 2000. I was fairly certain that I was headed toward people who had been born about a hundred and seventy-five years before that.

    As I approached the fir trees, I saw that the edge of the cemetery, which was roughly parallel to the distant driveway, consisted of a slough overgrown with trees. I looked down in the slough and wondered whether it was a former course of the Lizard Creek. Mother Nature had a way of playing games with history, too, and changed the course of rivers so that you were never really sure what the pioneers actually saw. I figured that he slough was not large enough to have contained the sizable creek, but only a drainage ditch that fed the Lizard. That calculation made, I took my last few steps and stood under the fir trees.

    The family name on the west facing of a large stone jumped out as if it were glowing neon: "Griffin!" This had to be Mr. and Mrs. Sylvester Griffin, the former having served as host of the first recorded Mass in Northwest Iowa, our present Diocese of Sioux City! The first confirmation came when I saw a separate small stone marked simply "Father." It sat on the opposite side of a fir tree from the Griffin stone, and was flanked by a second tree. The telltale sign that this was Sylvester was the bronze star commonly marking the graves of all United States Veterans. I knew that Sly Griffin was a vet. The star was marked "GAR, 1861-1865." The Grand Army of the Republic. This had to be him. I went to seek a name to be sure, but his small stone had fallen backwards and sank so that only a small percentage of it was visible. Its only visible marking was on the top, which read, "Father." On the opposite side of the "Griffin" stone was a marker of the same size stating on the top "Mother," and about a foot down the stone, "1833-1917." The inscriptions indicated that the east side of the large family stone was the front face. However, it contained only the imposing surname.

    I decided that I would forego the "non-perpetual care" status of the graveyard and pull up "Father's" stone. I was hoping the years he lived would be on the stone below ground level, and maybe even his first name. At the least I could leave his stone erect, an improvement I was quite sure he deserved as a pioneer Catholic and farmer, and Union soldier. With great effort (at least by modern standards) I inched his stone out of the sod and wiped off the mud. No name, no dates. I reset the stone. I considered doing the same for "Mother," but her stone was probably created in more modern times (wives most often outlived their laborious husbands); it was attached to a heavy cement base. The base had ensured that the stone did not sink too much, but could not prevent it from tipping down the hill.

    I went past the Griffin plots and was amazed at the next names that I found: Nicholas and Mary Nolan! Patrick Nowlan! Hugh and Catherine Collins! Michael and Bridget Collins! These were friends and families from the Old World that found their way to Iowa, then up the Des Moines and Lizard, all the way to land never before viewed by people of European descent! They left the ugly potato famine in Ireland only to spend their first vicious Iowa winter in a hole under an overturned wagon! I was standing smack in the middle of a human history book. A simple but vague story of bravery, hard work, perseverance, patience, and faith. Probably also of shortcomings; farming mistakes, deaths of babies (evidenced by the grave of a four-month-old child of the Henneberry family), failed-but-tolerated marriages, chronic gut aches. These were people who mostly died before the first motorized vehicle sputtered down the road. They were buried after lives of battle in conquering the sea of prairie grass. I could as scarcely fathom their lives as they could fathom mine!

    I strolled back west toward the Griffin stone and glanced at its backside. Or was it the backside? Through green moss I spotted engravings.closer." Sylvester!" With great effort I made out the following: "Sylvester Griffin, died May 18, 1895, Age 77 years. James J. Griffin, died September 14, 1887, Aged 24 years." Below, near the bottom of the stone was what appeared to be a long sentence. All I could make out was "I am" and assumed it was a passage from Scripture. I had found the host of the first Mass in the Diocese! A little calculating told me that his wife, younger than him by about fifteen years, would have been only 22 at the time of that first Mass. I had wondered why she was not mentioned as a host with Sylvester, it is possible that they were not yet married at the time.

    I spent a considerable amount of time wandering among the gravestones of the earliest Lizard pioneers. I moved farther into the cemetery, and was struck by the number of bronze markers for the war veterans. I began to mark them down. Whereas I had found during the course of my research that the cemetery contained only three Civil War vets, I found seven. The three I had known were John Russell, John Thornton, and Hugh O'Neal. My studies indicated that Sylvester Griffin was a veteran of the Mexican War, but the marker at his grave placed him in the Civil War. Significant additions to the Civil War list were two men named Kirk, presumably brothers. One was named Martin, the other's given name was rendered unreadable by a break in the stone. I found one other GAR marker, at a Flanigan family stone. However, the only names on the stone were female; Mary, Bridgit, and Maggie. The fourth side of the stone was weathered smooth.

    The Civil War veterans were interesting to me for a several reasons. Griffin and Russell were original settlers on the Lizard in the 1850's, and it was relatively rare that recent immigrants to Northwest Iowa crossed the state to participate in the war. Further, more Iowans (per capita) became casualties for the Union effort than any other Northern state, so it was amazing that they returned alive. I was, of course, unsure whether the Kirks and Flanigan had settled at the Lizard before or after the war. The stones for Thornton and O'Neal suggested that they arrived at the Lizard in the post-bellum period. Thornton fought for Company A of the 3rd New Jersey Cavalry, and O'Neal for Company K of the 4th West Virginia Infantry. These two men were probably examples of the many Irish that settled initially in the east, and moved farther west with the growing tide in the later 1800's. The great number of Civil War vets in this small cemetery also left me wondering how many men of the Lizard left for the Civil War and never came back.

    After viewing the Flanigan stone, at the very back edge of the cemetery, I approached the church building from the east, which would have been the direction countless Catholics walked as they came to Mass from scores of miles. Lizard Church hosted original Catholic settlers from about a dozen communities. I entered the basement through a stairway and door. There was evidently a parish hall down there; remnants of past gatherings included an old coffee pot without a lid and scattered plastic flowers lying on an old cupboard. I went back outside and around to the front. Walking up the steps, I decided to try the door in case I might be able to see the interior. The door knob and lock had been wrecked, and I was able to pull the door open. The interior of the church was, of course, stripped of most all items. I smiled as I looked at the area where the altar would have been placed. The wall was painted with shamrocks. At the back of the church was painted a Gaelic cross. One banner remained on the wall, proclaiming, "Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!" All the pews and furnishings were gone. I spent a minute trying to contemplate the pain the parishioners must have felt when the bishop ordered this historic place to be closed. I wondered what that last Mass was like, held exactly 129 years after young Fr. William Emonds discovered the Lizard Catholics in August of 1855 on his way from Council Bluffs to see Iowa's first bishop, Mathias Loras, in Dubuque. I also tried to imagine the stately orator, Archbishop John Hennessey of Dubuque, Irish-born, visiting the small but proud rural church.

    Back out front of the church I took a few minutes to say a prayer of thanksgiving for all that the pioneer Catholics of the Lizard had done for their progeny and for our diocese. I prayed for the repose of the souls of those buried in the cemetery. Then I stood up from the church steps and strolled toward a small replica of the church (or the original?) and a mailbox next to it. In the mailbox was a zip-lock bag with pencils and a notebook. The notebook contained names, comments, and questions of visitors to Lizard Church; John Ford of Boston, Massachusetts, Sr. Annette George of Notre Dame, Indiana, James Tibke, Jr., of Paradise, Utah, Frank Francois of Bowie, Maryland, Vern Chapin of Bellingham, Washington, Harold Condon of Cupertino, California, among others. They had all come from the many branches of the vine that grew and prospered on the Lizard. Many commented on their relationships to the deceased, pilgrimages to a family heritage with humble beginnings.

    I kept one pencil out of the zip-lock bag. I wanted to go back to Sylvester Griffin's stone to see if I could decipher the passage on the bottom of the stone. On the way I jotted down all the names of war veterans that I could find, an impressive list. From World War II: Dennis Lee Monson, James Condon, James Bradley, William Gilligan, Francis Walsh, John Malloy, Hubert Heun, Clement Crahan, Vernard Vanderhoff, Vincent Vanderhoff. What an amazing record of service by this small community in the defeat of Hitler and Japan! All ten men apparently returned to the Lizard to lead long and productive lives after the war. Again, I contemplated whether there were others that had died in the line of duty.

    Merle Poppen's gravestone named him as a veteran of the Vietnam War. He survived that terrible conflict to lay in peace next to Lizard Creek.

    There were four veterans listed as having fought in World War I, 1917-1918. Amazingly, it appeared that three of them died in the line of duty, and all within fifteen days. Emmet Condon died on October 6, 1918. Harold Collins of the 822d Aero Squadron, American Expeditionary Force, died nine days later, October 15. And Private James Francis Bradley of the 337th Field Artillery perished on October 21, 1918. John Collins was the lone survivor as indicated by the years of birth and death on his gravestone, 1890-1957.

    Finally, I made my way back to the Griffin stone. I took a piece of paper, placed it flat against the stone and started the pencil back and forth, and the words slowly appeared, ".you will be...as you pass by...for death and...man as you." I pieced the deciphered words together with those that were legible. When I read the resulting phrase out loud I was overcome with the feeling that the voice was not my own, but that of Sylvester Griffin,

        "Remember man
        As you pass by,
        You are now
        As once was I.

        As I am
        You will be,
        Prepare for death
        And pray for me."

    Copyright © 2002, Richard J. Roder. All rights reserved.


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