Via Dolorosa

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

The two most interesting buildings in Storm Lake to me, as they so often are in any town, are two churches: Lakeside Presbyterian because it is so iconic of The City Beautiful, its clock spire shrouded by snowflakes; and St. Mary’s Catholic, which I argue is one of the greatest works of art in Iowa.

I was reared in the amber light of the St. Mary’s stained glass windows and spent many First Fridays of the month contemplating its walls and windows while commandeered within them for ritual hours on end. A little of it rubbed off on me, good Sisters of the Presentation. It’s why we run a picture of a local stained glass window every Easter.

The Stations of the Cross, the Via Dolorosa or Way of Sorrow, is depicted in a series of framed paintings on the otherwise spare block walls. The figures are contemporary: men in overalls with modern hammers nailing him down, women in heels and dresses, the commoners crucifying the son of a carpenter, one of their own. The church was built in 1953 under the aesthetic direction of Father Edward Catich of St. Ambrose University in Davenport. He was a friend of Grant Wood’s (Catich was an understudy and teaching assistant to Wood at the University of Iowa) and hung out at Woods’ Stone City commune after having played jazz in Chicago. He went by the nickname “Catfish” and his signature was a fish that you can spot in St. Mary’s.

Catich was a regionalist like Wood becoming a modernist within a religious discipline and a radical point of view inspired by the communal Catholic Worker’s Movement. In correspondence about the holy cards with Catholic Workers foundress Dorothy Day they urged each other on with their projects that drew so much resistance from the local and world church. If they were to heel, Catich said, they would be no better than the secular artists. He went on to be world renown in calligraphy, stone lettering and stained glass illustration.

Eight years before St. Mary‘s went up, the Vatican admonished Catich for drawing holy cards showing Jesus as a common man, dressed in a tee-shirt dead on the ground, victim of a fascist state. Another showed a white Madonna with a black baby who hangs onto a white mask. The Bishop of Davenport ordered them out of circulation.

But Catich kept on going with more pencil drawings that were to become the series at St. Mary’s. The paintings, too, became a matter of controversy. The Vatican continued to send letters to the Davenport Diocese up until 1962 to put a leash on that stray, at which point the bishop finally stood up to Rome. I’m not sure how Storm Lake, in the even more conservative Sioux City Diocese, pulled it off other than for the power of pastor Msgr. Cleo Ivis’ formidable will to raise money and build a great church. The clue might lie in the brilliant stained glass windows that reach to the skies to glorify the saints, from Thomas Aquinas to Maria Goretti to Francis of Assisi. The window closest to the altar in the pole position leading all saints is that of Pope Pius X, who had been recently sainted and who shared the same name as Pope Pius XII — the genesis of those letters of admonition.

Jesus as just a man, beneath even us as He makes his way through the paintings. He takes on the look of the indigenous, whose faces Catich studied as a boy growing up in Montana, until he was orphaned at 12. The victim’s face is round and cheekbones high, hair black and chest barreled in heroic form. In the main stained glass window three-headed cubist demons and gargoyles with what might be Mayan glyphs are bounded off from a crucified Jesus. A drop of blood from his side is shed on Storm Lake. The artist ordained this a special place with a renewing covenant. It was, after all, the only church that had the spirit to take on his work.

When you look inside you see all the people, brown and white and black, illuminated in the dapple of the stained glass. The church is often the main organizing cultural institution in the immigrant community, and St. Mary’s is especially so to Latinos. It is their safe harbor, their sanctuary. They see themselves on the walls, and we are drawn to walk with them.