'If You Build It, He Will Come'
“If you build it, he will come.”
For Catholics in Dyersville, Iowa, this oft-repeated phrase points to more than the local baseball diamond made famous in the 1989 movie Field of Dreams.
Just a few miles from the field — which, by the way, still draws fans — the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier beckons even more insistently.
Nor is location the only thing the 115-year-old church has in common with the field. Dyersville's early Catholic settlers surely would have identified with the obstacles that met Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) as he set out to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his farm.
Although the actual pioneer founders of the Dyersville community in 1846 were a small band of Bavarian Catholics, the English Protestant immigrants who arrived three years later deserve the credit for developing the little population center. According to a series of sermons given by the current pastor, Msgr. Edward Petty, “Catholics were not particularly welcome to settle here.”
The tables turned in the 1850s, when the railroad came — and, with it, the Irish Catholics who were building it. The first Mass was offered on Dyersville soil in 1856. But the budding Catholic community was far from home free. The Germans and Irish argued endlessly, which apparently caused the first resident pastor to leave abruptly, and the parish ran out of money halfway through the building of its first church. Four families mortgaged their 200-acre farms to save the project.
Around the same time, the builders discovered that the foundation extended beyond the parish's property. A parishioner stepped forward to offer his life savings so the parish could purchase the surrounding plots of land needed to complete the church. His name? Francis Xavier Bullinger. (His saintly namesake's feast day is Dec. 3.)
Under the direction of a new German pastor, Dyersville's reputation as a thriving Catholic community spread. A school was developed and, by 1868, 25 parish families had multiplied to 250. The church's length had to be doubled.
Twenty years later, overflow crowds had to sit outside and listen to Mass through open windows. It was then that — with no greater technology than the rope and pulley for lifting materials up to 212 feet high — work began on the current structure, which seats 1,285. Dedicated in 1888, it was raised to the rank of minor basilica in 1956 by Pope Pius XII.
Odd as I found the baseball field carved out of a cornfield on my first visit to Dyersville, St. Francis Xavier Basilica's majestic twin spires and Gothic façade seemed even more out of place in the middle of rural Iowa. Of the 50-plus basilicas in the United States, it is the only one outside a metropolitan area.
As I stepped inside, I was grateful for the brochure in my hand. Besides labeling each stained-glass window, painting and statue, the pamphlet also drew my attention to features I would have missed at first glance. These included a marble coat of arms at my feet, a dozen gold-leaf crosses representing the Twelve Apostles along the interior walls, and some traditional symbols shining from atop the arch of each stained-glass window.
As I strolled through the nave, I paused in front of each window to reflect. Upon reaching the depiction of St. Francis Xavier, however, I had to giggle. Apparently the Chicago artist commissioned for the work in the late 1880s misunderstood the early pastor's description of the missionary to the Far East. The only Indians the artist knew about were Native Americans, so he depicted St. Francis Xavier's Asian converts wearing feathered headdresses.
To the left of the main altar is the beautifully carved altar of the Blessed Virgin Mary, standing 36 feet high and 15 feet wide. The central niche contains a set of statues depicting Mary's Coronation; a set of beads given by Pope John Paul II is on the Blessed Mother's arm. She is surrounded by a mixture of small statues, oil paintings and carvings depicting the remaining mysteries of the rosary. I lingered here a long time.
The altar of St. Joseph on the other side yielded similarly fruitful contemplation. Its central niche holds a 1900 Bavarian wood carving of the Holy Family with an angel presenting a small church to the Infant Jesus. It is surrounded by oil paintings of the betrothal of Mary and Joseph, the flight to Egypt, the Holy Family at work and the death of St. Joseph. Below are oils and statues of saints such as Francis Xavier Cabrini (who passed through Dyersville occasionally on the train) and St. Isidore (patron of farmers).
Thank God for ‘Crazy’ Catholics
On either side of the main altar are life-size paintings of the descent of the Holy Spirit and the holy souls in Purgatory. Over the altar stands a 52-foot butternut baldachin and an 1873 crucifix carved by an early parishioner from a walnut tree on his farm.
Looking up, I was captivated by a giant image of the Heavenly Liturgy as described in the Book of Revelation, painted by a Milwaukee sibling duo in 1905. The Lamb of God stands in the center, surrounded by angels and saints — John the Baptist heading up the recognizable Old Testament heroes on one side and the Blessed Mother leading on the other. Two former pastors' faces appear, without halos, in these groupings. What a powerful physical reminder of who accompanies us at Mass each day!
And what a beautiful place this is to be near to, and receive, our Lord in his Eucharistic presence.
Did the early residents of Dyers-ville think the Catholics were crazy for their insistence on building a Catholic community in a primarily Protestant town? Probably.
Thanks be to God for those faithful men and women who, in a certain sense, heard the same message as the fictional Ray Kinsella: “If you build it, he will come.”
They built it. He came. And still does so daily.
Kimberly Jansen writes from
- Nov. 28-Dec. 4, 2004