Sacred Places

Preservation Iowa has been consulting with Partners for Sacred Places on ways to assist disaster-affected sacred places in Cedar Rapids and across the state. Partners for Sacred Places is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the sound stewardship and active community use of America’s older religious properties.

During the summer of 2009, we enlisted Zak Hingst from Iowa City to help assess flood damage to Cedar Rapids sacred places. We would like to extend a sincere thank you to Zak for assisting us in beginning this important assessment. You can read Zak’s full summary below and view his assessment of recovery for each of the Cedar Rapids Sacred Places.

Survey of Cedar Rapids’ Flood-damaged Churches
Written by Zak Hingst

The Flood of 2008 seriously impacted the faith community in Cedar Rapids. Nearly thirty churches and ministries were affected by the flood, to varying degrees. Peoples Church Unitarian Universalist, located downtown near the art museum, did not take on water; damage there was limited to the loss of steam heat and the need to install a new heating system by December 2009. Salem United Methodist Church, on the other hand, was devastated. Four to six feet of water ruined the interior of the sanctuary in the 1904 church building, in addition to destroying the basement and its newly remodeled kitchen. An educational and administrative annex, built in 1961, was also heavily damaged.

Not only are these places vital to the community, many of them are housed in indispensable historic buildings. The urgency of the situation is highlighted by the fact that one building, historic Trinity Methodist Church, has already been demolished. Another, the Cedar Rapids Christian Center, is slated for demolition in July. Despite these losses, there are early success stories. The Mother Mosque of America was the first building in the United States dedicated exclusively as a mosque. After gutting and renovating the damaged basement of its modest 1934 structure, the mosque reopened debt-free in February 2009. It not only plans to stay in place in the Time Check neighborhood, it hopes to expand in the future. Aid to Women, a non-denominational Christian organization, also returned in February. Seizing the unique opportunity afforded by the flood, Aid to Women altered the floor plan of its building to better suit its future needs. When the organization received relief funds from FEMA in April, it was able to pay off the reconstruction debts and is now in a stronger position than before the flood.

Most of the faith groups affected by the flood are somewhere in the middle of the road to recovery. Some are in limbo, delaying decisions about the future of their buildings and their congregations pending decisions by the city about where and how to rebuild. Salem Church, for instance, is waiting for final information on the proposed flood wall on the west bank of the river. Other churches have initiated the recovery process at their original location, but have a long road ahead. Both the affected Catholic parishes, St. Patrick’s and St. Wenceslaus, fit this description. Although each parish has returned home for mass, their recovery is incomplete. Both suffered serious damage and are still working to restore fellowship halls, offices, etc. Still others are in place today but uncertain of their futures. Peoples Church, spurred by the loss of city heat and the need for further investment in its National Register listed building, is unsure of its long term future. Despite over 100 years in downtown Cedar Rapids, it may relocate in the next five to ten years.

The common thread running through the stories of all the flood damaged faith groups in Cedar Rapids is an uncertain future. Aid to Women may consider itself stronger after the flood than before, but it is an exception, not the rule. There are many sources of that uncertainty. City enforced relocation is a concern for relatively few churches, but those at risk tend to be older and more historic. Most face considerable financial uncertainty, and that is the biggest threat to the preservation of these irreplaceable historic structures and their continued role in the community.

Reconstruction costs are daunting, especially for churches that own multiple buildings. Compounding this problem is the fact that most of the churches – as with most property owners in Cedar Rapids – did not have flood insurance. Even for those lucky enough to have insurance, construction costs have far outstripped payments. Thankfully the federal government instituted a policy change after Hurricane Katrina allowing FEMA recovery funds to go to community service organizations even if they have religious affiliations. Aid to Women benefited from this change. Churches themselves are still exempt, though. Even those already recognized as historic and listed on the National Register of Historic Places (e.g., Peoples Church, Mother Mosque) are not eligible for federal funding or tax credits; they must rely on donations and volunteers.

About the Author

Zak Hingst
In 2009, Zak was in the second year of a master’s degree program in Urban & Regional Planning at the University of Iowa. He is pursuing specializations in historic preservation and transportation. He grew up in Iowa City and wanted to get involved in preservation and restoration in Cedar Rapids after the flood.