Old Iowa churches find new life as a Buddhist temple and community center


Two religious buildings in Warren County are experiencing a renaissance.

When Iowa was first settled by European migrants in the 1800s, churches were among the first buildings erected.

“One church gave (the settlers) a sense of gratitude and also gave the community an identity,” said Paul Lasley, professor emeritus of sociology at Iowa State University.

But a church was more than just a structure of worship, added Lasley.

“They have become a center of community gatherings – a social hall. Not just a place to engage in sacraments like marriage and burial, but a place for young people to socialize,” Lasley said.

In central Iowa, some of the state’s original places of Christian worship are experiencing a renaissance as migration continues and communities struggle to connect amid pandemics and social media.

Buddhists find refuge in Indianola

A group of Buddhists from the Des Moines area purchased the old Catholic Church and Indianola Rectory as their first permanent home for their monks and religious practices.  The building has been vacant for several years and will be cleaned up to accommodate the building's new role as a Buddhist temple.  December 20, 2021.

A close-knit group of dozens of families from the Des Moines metro closed a permanent home for a Theravada Buddhist temple on December 16. Members of the Iowa Karen Buddhist Association, originally from Myanmar, find home and safety in Indianola after fleeing persecution in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, in Southeast Asia.

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Des Moines resident Ann Harmon has been helping refugee families resettle in Iowa for 10 years.

“A Buddhist temple is not like a Christian church,” Harmon said. “They don’t meet every week like Christians do; they go to the temple at any time of the day or week to meditate or bring food to the monk. It is a very calm and peaceful place.

A group of Buddhists from the Des Moines area purchased the old Catholic Church and Indianola Rectory as their first permanent home for their monks and religious practices.  The building has been vacant for several years and will be cleaned up to accommodate the building's new role as a Buddhist temple.  December 20, 2021.

Nyoh Thwin, president of the Karen Buddhist Association of Iowa, explains that having a physical structure for the group means having a place for the celebrations.

“If we don’t have a temple, we are not a community,” Thwin said the day Karen Buddhists closed the Indianola property, which was purchased for $ 310,000.

“People come from all over the Midwest for these celebrations,” Harmon said. “So far, they’ve crammed into someone’s living room to have their celebrations.”

Harmon said Buddhists would use the main building for mediation and celebrations while the old Catholic rectory would become the monk’s home and monastery.

Perched on a hill northwest of Indianola, the New Temple and New Monastery offer sweeping views of the Iowa countryside.

“It’s just a beautiful structure and the community has been very welcoming,” said Harmon.

Lasley said the purchase of the church completes a natural circle at the end of a generation of wandering.

“Building a place of worship is an important testament to the arrival of immigrants to be grateful for their trials, tribulations and success,” said Lasley.

Old Methodist Church reborn in rural Warren County

One of these original churches built by European migrants is the Methodist Episcopal Church of Palmyra about 10 miles northeast of Indianola. It was built in 1870, just 24 years after Iowa became a state.

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Due to the decline of the religious community, the building was sold to the Township of Palmyra for $ 100 in 1976.

Shortly after, Palmyra administrator Marilyn Halterman, who lives two miles north of the church, heard from the state historical society.

The setting sun paints the west side of the Palmyra Church on September 24.  Efforts are being made to raise funds to maintain the historic Palmyra Church.  In 2016, a new roof was placed on the structure, which dates from 1870, but more work is needed.

“I took them over there and they were walking, saying, ‘Oh, that has good bones. “I kept thinking, ‘Are we in the same building?” Halterman said.

This meeting led to the building, now known as the Methodist Episcopal Church of Palmyra, on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

According to Wikipedia, the church hosted revivals from Chatauqua until the early 1940s as well as traveling evangelists who came to the area by train. Artist P. Buckley Moss used the church in some paintings.

This bell originates from the historic Methodist Episcopal Church in Palmyra, but was removed for fear that structural integrity would fail.  The church has since been renovated and a local group of residents are considering putting the bell back in place.

The township, which is home to less than 600 people, however, could not meet the maintenance requirements – the roof collapsed and the foundations collapsed.

With the help of grant writer Jane Colacecchi in 2016, the church received $ 123,000 to repair the roof and foundation.

“We had to match some of those grants, but without her we couldn’t have saved this building – and she didn’t charge us a dime,” Halterman said. “She was the source of motivation for the entire restoration project.”

Today, the church of Palmyre hosts a sewing club, bridal showers and baby showers.

“You just have to name any little need, and we got it right here,” Halterman said. “A guy even made it up for a small wedding.”

The building also serves as a gathering place for citizens, such as a meeting with the county supervisory board about the new county courthouse.

Although she could not confirm the town was incorporated, Halterman said the nearby town of Palmyra once flourished, with a school, blacksmith, banks and shops. Today, the commercial elements of the community have given way to residential buildings.

“Like all of these other small communities in the state, we all have very close ties,” said Halterman.

A plaque on the front of the building recognizes the place of the Church of Palmyra on the National Register of Historic Places.  Efforts are being made to raise funds to maintain the historic Palmyra Church.  In 2016, a new roof was placed on the structure, which dates from 1870, but more work is needed.

Fundraising for the building continues with hopes of raising at least $ 200,000 for an addition to the bathrooms and kitchen in the house. It is also planned to raise the bell and bring it back to the steeple. Until then, residents keep a close eye on the property.

Although the building no longer serves as it was originally intended – as a place of worship – it still serves the community in many ways.

“These buildings represent the same set of values ​​and beliefs that are important to our history and our ancestors,” said Lasley. “We look at these buildings and think about the sacrifices our ancestors made to build them: pouring the bell, pouring concrete, making a stained glass window. They give us meaning and give us an idea of ​​the context. “

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Teresa Kay Albertson covers the southern suburbs of Des Moines for the Register and the Indianola Record-Herald. Contact her at [email protected] or 515-419-6098.


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