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Saving St. Mary’s

130-year-old church needs new roof, siding
Joan Frees, a member of St. Mary’s Newport Cemetery Association, and the church’s current caretaker, is leading the charge to save the building. (photo by Doug Lindner)

NEWPORT– There used to be a village of Newport along the road halfway between Solon and Iowa City.
St. Mary’s Church of Newport is just west on Newport Road, and if funds for its preservation are not raised, it may soon become a memory from the distant past, too.
The 130-year-old structure no longer serves a Catholic congregation as it did for the first 110 years of its existence. Even its role as a precinct polling place has fallen along the wayside.
The church bell, added in 1891, now tolls only a few times a year to mark the consecrated nuptials of a just-wedded couple.
Since 1994, the church has been under the care of the St. Mary’s Newport Cemetery Association, and its current caretaker, Joan Frees, is leading the charge to save the building.
Frees, 51, has been taking care of the grounds for about 40 years.
Her father-in-law, Robert Frees, was one of the founding members of the group that purchased the site from the local diocese for $1, and he maintained the property with the help of nieces and nephews, she explained.
“He really had a lot of ties to the church and he took care of it,” she said.
As the younger family members aged and moved out on their own, Joan joined her father-in-law.
When Robert passed away nine years ago, the duties fell to Joan.
“I do all the outside work that I can, all the spraying and mowing,” she explained. Anything mechanical is shouldered by her husband Bill.
She also cleans the church before the one or two weedings held there each year.
“We’d like to have more,” she said.
Frees is trying to raise $50,000 to protect the building from the ravages of time.
“The shingles are coming off, the roof is leaking,” she said. “We need to do that for sure or else structurally it won’t be sound anymore.”
The group would like to replace the siding as well, she said. The exterior has been painted over time, but some of the boards need to be replaced and the paint jobs aren’t lasting as long anymore.
Ideally, she said, the association would create a 50-year solution, re-roofing with steel shingles and utilizing concrete siding. Doing both would cost almost $50,000.
The association received a $4,000 cultural grant from the Community Foundation of Johnson County in December, and established a crowd-funding web page at gofundme.com (search Save St. Mary’s Newport Church).
A sign was also posted outside the church grounds on Newport Road in hopes of attracting contributions from bicyclists who park there to access Sugar Bottom Road, as well as people just passing by.
“It’s kind of a landmark,” she said. “They drive by and they don’t really notice, but if it was gone, I think they’d really miss it.”
Frees has been promoting the the fundraiser for about a month and total contributions have reached just shy of $10,000.
If the association surpasses the $50,000 mark, the next improvement would be an addition to house a bathroom and a changing area.
“There’s no place to change,” she said. “People have to come here dressed so that’s kind of a hassle.”
Those who have used St. Mary’s for a wedding location have fallen in love with the little country church in the heavily-timbered township.
“It provides a nice setting if you have a small wedding,” Frees said.
Such was the case for the wedding of Macy Bell and Ryan Krall in December of 2015.
When the two first started dating, Ryan’s grandmother, Pay Skay, showed the church and the cemetery to the couple, explaining how it was now home to many of her family members.
While they were walking the grounds, Macy took a cellphone photo of the church and posted it to her Facebook and Instagram accounts saying she would be married there some day.
“When he proposed, I said that’s the one thing I want,” Macy said. “I want to get married at Newport.”
Grandma Pat made the arrangments.
Macy owns Borrow My Vintage, a rental company for weddings featuring “antique-y” vases and centerpieces, and the Newport church was right down her alley.
“It was tiny, it was old, it was white– it was pretty well vintage– and it meant something to Ryan,” she said. And that made it a special place for her.
The wedding took place at 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 11, 2015.
“It was amazing,” Macy said. “It was December, but it was 55 degrees outside. It was beautiful.”
She’s been approached by friends who’ve asked about wedding sites, and while she has no trouble recommending St. Mary’s, she’s not sure it will be there for them.
“It’s so important to my husband and his grandma I would hate for it to go,” she said. Since the wedding, the church has become a big part of her life, and she worries she won’t be able to share it with her children.
“We’re never going to able to show our kids if it gets knocked down,” Macy said.
But if the money can’t be raised for repairs, Frees said, there may be no future for St. Mary’s Church of Newport for weddings or anything else.
“Right now it needs the roof and the siding to even be able to stand,” she said. “It’s a real fine line there– it might as well be torn down, because the roof is going to cave and the siding’s going to rot.”
The history of the church dates back to the settlement of the area.
According to former church historian Irene Shima and Iowa historian Irving Weber, it all began with a group of Bohemian Catholic families gathering in the log cabin of James and Barbara Krall south and east of the present church.
The Kralls donated the land for both the church and the cemetery.
The Bohemian Township Church was founded in September of 1886, and a priest from Davenport came on the third Sunday of the month for services.
The first baptism was held Dec. 5, 1886 and the first funeral followed in February of 1887.
The bell, engraved with the name of the first priest (Jannes Ziebeck) and three members of the congregation (Jospeh Kabel, Mike Hudacek and John Dvorsky) was added in 1891. The balcony was constructed in 1915-16, a gift of Frank, Anton, Fred and Jim Michael.
Until the 1920s, said Weber in a history for the June 14, 1986, edition of the Iowa City Press-Citizen, the sermons were delivered half in English and half in Bohemian.
Up until 1925, Weber noted, the women seated themselves on the left side of the church and the men on the right.
For many years, the church held dinners in the grove across from the church, Weber said, open to the public and followed by a dance with music by the Evergreen Band.
The church celebrated its 100th anniversary June 22, 1986, but was decommissioned by the church shortly thereafter and scheduled for demolition, leading to the creation of the St. Mary’s Newport Cemetery Association.
Donations can be made online at gofundme.com but can also be mailed to St. Mary’s Newport Church, 2672 Newport Rd. NE, Solon IA 52333. Frees can be reached at wjfrees@gmail.com for more information.
“We’re at the point with the church if we can’t get the donations enough to do the major repairs that we need, then it’s going to have to be torn down,” Frees said.