St. Michael’s Church is located in Holbrook, Iowa. Holbrook is an unassociated community that lies in the eastern portion of the state. While the church was not founded immediately upon the settlement of the land, it quickly became one of the unifying factors of the community after its completion.
Old St. Michael’s Church and Cemetery are located in Greene Township, Iowa County, Iowa. This area experienced an influx of Irish-Catholic settlers after Iowa City became the new capital of Iowa on May 4, 1839. The creation of Iowa City as the capital was made possible by the Black Hawk Treaty, which was signed by the government on September 21, 1832. This agreement with the Sac and Fox Indians allowed the settlement of Johnson County. At the time of the treaty the boundary lines between Johnson and Iowa counties were not clearly defined. This definition did not come until the survey lines of 1840. By this time, the area had all ready begun to be settled.
Holbrook was not the first location in this general area to be settled. An area around Old Man’s Creek, called Ricord’s settlement, was the first place to be settled. Old Man’s Creek empties into the Iowa River south of Iowa City. Immigrants had settled here and followed the creek westward for further settlement.
Settlers frequently settled along creek and riverbeds in Eastern Iowa. Their reason for doing so was two-fold. Firstly, a creek or river guaranteed an easily accessible water source. Secondly, creek and riverbeds were the only places in Eastern Iowa, where the landscape was rapidly giving way to prairie, that standing timbers could be found.
Timber was extremely important to early settlers because it was from this material that they were able to construct permanent homes. When enough men had gathered into the area they came together for a “house raising.” Several men were needed to complete this task because of the tremendous weight of the logs used.
The first mass that was performed in the area was actually said in one of these houses, rather than a church. It is recorded that Thomas Hanson, one early settler of the Holbrook area, frequently brought the priest from Iowa City in a lumber wagon drawn by a yoke of oxen. Virtually all members of the settlement would make their way to Thomas Hanson’s home to attend the services. It was soon after these masses began to be said that the first church in Holbrook was built.
The first church that stood at Holbrook was a small frame church. It stood near where the present church stands, its location now part of the cemetery. This original church was described in the memoirs of Reverend Mathias Hannon, who arrived in Iowa City in 1853 and took charge of its mission, “I said mass within before the floor was laid, had the beautiful snow for carpet, and a pine box for an altar in fact a place as forlorn as the stable wherein the Savior was born. There was no more than fourteen families.”
The first resident pastor assigned to St. Michael’s was the Reverend Peter J. Sullivan. Bishop Loras appointed him in 1856. Bishop Mathias Loras was named the first bishop of the Diocese of Dubuque upon its creation on July 28, 1837.
Father Sullivan directed the creation of a large brick church upon the current site in 1867. The church contained a spacious nave. The walls of the nave were decorated with fifteen oil paintings representing the Stations of the Cross. These paintings were donated by Father Sullivan himself and were said to cost $1,000. No church outside of Dubuque had finer paintings. These paintings are now lost.
The cost of this structure, which is the present church, was $2,000 in 1867. It was 90 feet long and 50 feet wide. 15 men principally erected it, with Thomas Boyle providing most of the backing. The bricks used in the construction of the church most likely came from the Sangster Kiln at Coralville. Ebenezer Sangster’s biography mentions that he built a large Catholic Church located 23 miles west of Iowa City. The fact that the church is made of brick is significant because at the time all other churches west of Iowa City were made of wood.
St. Michael’s Church filed Articles of Incorporation on April 27, 1912 for fifty years. Churches were not required to file for incorporation until after 1890. These Articles named James Davis President, as he was the sitting Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Davenport, and Edward F. Gaule as the Vice President, as he was the sitting Pastor. The Secretary was P.J. Donohoe and the Treasurer was Edward F. Gaule.
St. Michael’s renewed and amended its Articles of Incorporation on April 23, 1962. Ralph J. Hayes was the Bishop of Davenport, Martin Cone the Vicar General and the Reverend Patrick J. Prior Pastor. Luke Collins and Joseph Hannon were names directors.
The brick church that was constructed in 1867 under the direction of Father Sullivan was modified in 1907 when a new tower dome was constructed. The construction of this tower took place under the auspices of Father Thomas J. King. The bell that is placed in the tower was cast in St. Louis in 1882. The bell is inscribed with the words, “Father T.J. King, St. Michael’s, Holbrook.”
St. Michael’s Church is a basilican form church. A basilica was originally a building used for public meetings, such as legal proceedings, during the Roman Empire. The rise of Christianity in the late Roman Empire caused this building to be adapted to use by the Christians. This form was adapted because its hall-like structure gave a clear idea as to where the important part of the building was, as well as providing enough space for all worshippers. This form was most likely adopted at Holbrook because it closely resembles the Catholic churches of Ireland, especially those of Wicklow County, where several early Holbrook settlers originated