St. Ambrose Cathedral (Des Moines, Iowa)

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St. Ambrose Cathedral
St Ambrose Des Moines.jpg
Location Des Moines, Iowa
Country United States
Denomination Roman Catholic
Founded 1856 (parish)
Dedication Ambrose of Milan
Dedicated October 11, 1891
Status Cathedral/Parish
Functional status Active
Architect(s) James J. Egan
Style Romanesque Revival
Groundbreaking 1890
Completed 1891
Length 185 feet (56 m)[1]
Width 102 feet (31 m)
Number of spires One
Materials Bedford stone
Diocese Des Moines
Bishop(s) Most Rev. Richard Pates
Rector Rev. John Bertogli
St. Ambrose Cathedral and Rectory
St. Ambrose Cathedral (Des Moines, Iowa) is located in Iowa
St. Ambrose Cathedral (Des Moines, Iowa)
St. Ambrose Cathedral (Des Moines, Iowa) is located in the US
St. Ambrose Cathedral (Des Moines, Iowa)
Location 607 High Street
Des Moines, Iowa
Coordinates 41°35′19″N 93°37′32″W / 41.58861°N 93.62556°W / 41.58861; -93.62556Coordinates: 41°35′19″N 93°37′32″W / 41.58861°N 93.62556°W / 41.58861; -93.62556
Area 1.25 acres (0.51 ha)
Built 1927 (rectory)
NRHP Reference # 79000927[2]
Added to NRHP March 30, 1979

St. Ambrose Cathedral is an historical church located in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, United States. It serves as a parish church and as the seat of the Diocese of Des Moines in the Catholic Church. The cathedral, along with the adjoining rectory, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


The first Mass in what would become the city of Des Moines was celebrated in a log hut in 1851 at Fort Des Moines by Father Alexander Hattenberger, a priest from Ottumwa, Iowa.[3] At the time, Des Moines was part of the Diocese of Dubuque, which covered the entire state of Iowa. Other priests visited the Des Moines area from time to time, including: the Revs. Timothy Mullen, John Kreckel and Louis De Cailly.[4] In 1856, one year after the Iowa Legislature voted to move the capitol from Iowa City to its present location in Des Moines, the first St. Ambrose Church was built on land purchased by Father De Cailly. The church was built by the Rev. George Plathe, who was the first resident priest in Des Moines.[4] It measured 40 feet (12 m) by 24 feet (7 m).[5] The Rev. John F. Brazil became pastor in 1861, and he built a school in 1863.

St. Ambrose remained Des Moines' only Catholic church until 1869 when the Rev. Nicholas Sassel established St. Mary's to serve the pastoral needs of the city's German community.[4] Des Moines became a part of the Diocese of Davenport when it was established in 1881.

Father Brazil started construction of the present church in 1890 and it was completed by the Rev. Michael Flavin in 1891. Bishop Henry Cosgrove dedicated the church on October 11 of the same year. James J. Egan of Chicago was the architect. He designed Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport at the same time.[6] St. Ambrose Church was chosen to be the cathedral of the Diocese of Des Moines when it was established by Pope Pius X on August 12, 1911. The present rectory was built next to the church in 1927.[1]

A significant renovation of the cathedral took place in the 1940s which added the Chapel of Our Lady to the rear of the building, and the installation of the present stained glass windows. Another large-scale renovation of the cathedral was begun in the 1970s by Bishop Maurice Dingman out of a desire for a better liturgical environment, and because the building was in need of repairs. A process of researching the liturgy, church architecture, and accessing the needs of the parish was put in place as a part of the larger planning process. The people of the entire diocese were also invited to participate in this process. The cathedral's interior was subsequently repainted in the early years of the 21st century.


The cathedral was designed in the Romanesque Revival style and built of Bedford stone. It measures 185 feet (56 m) by 102 feet (31 m).[1] The main façade features a prominent main entrance in the center. It is contained in a round arch below a triangular pediment. The entranceway is flanked on the right by a tall bell tower, which is composed of five sections that are differentiated by a change in the stonework, and topped by a pyramid-shaped spire. Flanking the left side of the entrance is a structure that is ⅔ the height of the larger church and is articulated by a semicircular projection that is topped by a conical roof. At the opposite side of the church from the entrance is a rounded apse. When it was first built the church had a symmetrical design to it. When the chapel was built in the 1940s that symmetry was broken.[1]

The interior is a large open expanse that is free of pillars, which was a hallmark of Egan's style.[1] The windows in the cathedral depict the establishment of the Catholic faith in the United States, the State of Iowa and the Diocese of Des Moines. The rose window in the Chapel of Our Lady depicts the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The altar, ambo and chair in the chapel were used by Pope John Paul II during a Mass he celebrated at his historic visit to Living History Farms just outside Des Moines in 1979.[5]


The rectory measures 85 feet (26 m) by 60 feet (18 m).[1] It is a three-story structure that is composed of both stone and brick and is designed the Romanesque Revival style to match the cathedral next door. The gabled roof runs parallel to that of the cathedrals'. The windows are largely rectangular in shape. On the main façade of the building, however, is a row of round-arch windows on the second floor. The center two windows are framed by an arch and engaged columns above the building's main entrance. A semi-circular staircase protrudes from the east elevation near the main façade. The structure is L-shaped and is connected to the cathedral by an arcade in the back.


  1. ^ a b c d e f Muffy Mitchell. "St. Ambrose Cathedral and Rectory" (PDF). National Register of Historic Places - Nomination Form. Retrieved 2015-02-09. 
  2. ^ National Park Service (2009-03-13). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 
  3. ^ "History of Diocese of Des Moines". Diocese of Des Moines. Retrieved 2010-02-05. 
  4. ^ a b c Clarke, D.J. Des Moines, Diocese of (Desmoinensis) New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. IV (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967) 804.
  5. ^ a b "History of St. Ambrose Cathedral". St. Ambrose Cathedral. Retrieved 2010-02-05. 
  6. ^ "Historic Preservation in Davenport, Iowa" (PDF). City of Davenport. Retrieved 2010-12-14. 

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