Willey: The pride and joy of Willey, the steeple atop Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church, is gleaming, sturdier than ever.
Krause Konstruction of Coon Valley, Wisconsin, recently finished more than four weeks of repair of the steeple damaged by a derecho that hit early evening last Dec. 15.
“It sounded awful, like a dog howling, and it was pouring rain,” Sue Riesselman, who with her husband, Dennis, lives across the street north of the church, said of the storm.
“The velocity of the air went through the louvers and blew up the steeple just like blowing up a balloon,” she continued. “So the bricks just popped. They just blew from the steeple. There were bricks everywhere on the lawn, all over the place. We picked up bricks, limbs, shingles.”
The force of the falling bricks dented and punctured tiles on the roof.
Remarkably, though, Riesselman said, no bricks struck the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary just north of the church’s front door.
Larry Adkins, who was Krause Konstruction’s foreman on the project, said, “(The storm) twisted the steeple and broke brick loose. We reset and reinforced the whole tower. They shouldn’t have that issue again because the walls are now are actually pinned together to the structure of the steeple. There’s no way it’s going to move again.”
The north face of the steeple sustained the brunt of the damage, and altogether approximately 750 butternut-color bricks were replaced by Krause brick and stone mason Bill Miller. Adkins said that getting the correct form of the arch in the brick design was “a little painstaking, but we got it done.” Krause also replaced roof tiles, and finished the project July 19 spraying on a waterproof coating.
Krause’s website says exterior building repair and maintenance of churches is one of the business’ specialties. Krause previously has done other work at St. Mary, including tuckpointing a few years ago.
Adkins said, “I love working on this old architecture, and I do the best job I can because I want my stuff to withstand the test of time.”
A photo of St. Mary Church is featured on Marilyn Setzler’s book “Cathedrals Among the Cornfields,” which spotlights the beauty of the historic churches throughout Carroll County. The description of the photo says, “The spire of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Willey can be seen for miles. Rolling hills surround the town.”
St. Mary Parish began in 1881, and the first church was built in 1882. The cornerstone of the current Gothic-design church was laid July 4, 1906, and the first Mass in the finished church was celebrated Feb. 26, 1911.
Setzler wrote, “The copper-clad spire of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church, which rises 126 feet into the air, can be seen for many miles around. St. Louis brick is on the outside of the church, which measures 121-feet-by-50-feet.”
“The steeple is our landmark for the big city of Willey (population about 100),” Riesselman said.
Sight of the steeple strikes a chord in hearts of former residents when they’re driving back to visit, said Riesselman.
“They say, ‘We’re home. There’s Willey. There’s the steeple,’” she remarked. “It’s our landmark. It’s who we are.”
“We’re just thrilled that it’s being repaired, and it looks great,” she added.
In recent consolidation of parishes throughout the Catholic Diocese of Sioux City, St. Mary became part of St. John Paul II Parish in Carroll. Although the Willey church no longer has a regular Mass schedule, it’s still used for special services. Riesselman said people also stop in, taking time for prayer and reflection.
St. Mary Church Foundation is a nonprofit corporation established for maintenance and preservation of the church. Riesselman said the derecho caused more than $170,000 damage, and insurance will cover all but the 10% deductible. A number of people offered to make sure there were funds to cover the deductible, “but we’re fine,” Riesselman said, adding, “We have good benefactors.”
She said of the community’s attachment to the church, “People love to come here. It’s not only honoring a sacred place, it’s home, it’s family, it’s community. It’s where we chose to live, raise our families, work and pray. What a beautiful place.”