DES MOINES – Sitting on a hilltop with a 145-foot steeple, it has dominated a small Iowa town for nearly 120 years. Today, it’s one of the state’s most treasured historic buildings.
The Holy Guardian Angels Church and Cemetery in Roselle has been added to the National Register of Historic Places. Its historic significance is tied to Gothic architecture that German immigrants brought to the area in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
“The addition of the Holy Guardian Angels Church to the National Register of Historic Places is a significant milestone for Roselle as it continues to preserve and celebrate its history for future generations of Iowans to enjoy,” State Historian Laura Sadowsky said. “We congratulate and commend all who worked so hard to make this a successful nomination.”
Built in 1904, the church reflects the influence German-Catholic immigrants had on the area, including nearby Mount Carmel, in Carroll County.
It started in 1867 when Lambert Kniest bought 23,000 acres of land that would become Mount Carmel. The transaction prompted the bishop in Dubuque to send parishioners to the area where they could find more fertile land to farm. Once there, they established the county's first Catholic church in 1868.
“Roselle Township was settled soon after the first people came to Mount Carmel,” according to the church’s National Register nomination form. “The residents were all Catholics with the exception of four families who were Evangelical Lutheran.”
About 40 of Roselle’s Catholic families traveled to Mount Carmel for church services until 1874 when they built their own frame church, called “Heilige Schutzengels Kirche” or Holy Guardian Angels Church.
By the early 1900s, Roselle had become a bustling community with an extensive business district that included general stores and a creamery, barbershop, saloons, blacksmith shop and livery stables. As the community evolved, the congregation outgrew its church and decided to build a new one.
But transporting building materials was an arduous task since Roselle was not on a railroad line; all the materials had to be hauled three miles over rolling terrain and a primitive road to the church site. The process took 2,116 trips with horse-drawn wagons, 93 days of work with horses and 393 days of manual labor, the nomination form said.
In addition to money, parishioners donated items such as altars, communion rails and windows for the church, which cost $48,000. All of it was done while the parishioners, who were predominantly farmers, were establishing their own homes.
The church was completed in 1904 with an Indiana limestone foundation, distinctive Gothic architecture, a 145-foot steeple, and elaborate and highly colored stained windows.
Inside, the vaulted ceiling soars 37 feet above the ground floor. Statues of numerous saints, 26 angels and the four evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – keep watch over the sanctuary while mosaics with liturgical symbols and gilded altars greet worshipers.
Gothic characteristics include strong vertical lines, a steep-pitched roof, a slender tower topped by a needle spire, pointed gables, buttressed walls, large windows and pointed arches, windows and doors.
In addition, the National Register listing includes a nearby cemetery that has grave markers dating back to 1863.
“In the cemetery, the obelisk shape and cross design are predominant in the early cemetery grave markers along with the iron crosses that may have been made by local blacksmiths as would be customary at that time,” the nomination form said. "A number of markers have German script or endearments such as 'Mutter' or 'Vater'" – mother and father.
Other resources not included in the listing highlight the church parish’s dedication to education.
A school was built in 1888 and served as a convent and dormitory for students who boarded there during the week in winter. In 1899, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration of La Crosse, Wisc., came to Roselle to teach classes in the building.
A junior high school was built in 1916, and both schools served the community until the students joined the Kuemper Catholic system in Carroll in 1975. The first school was razed in 1977 while the junior high school building was moved off property.
By 1980, people of German origin made up Iowa’s largest single-ancestry group, the nomination form said. People of German descent outnumbered people of the next largest ancestry group in 78 of Iowa’s 99 counties, and Carroll County's concentration of German Americans was the highest in Iowa.
Incidentally, Carroll County was named for Charles Carroll (1737-1832) who was the only Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was the last signer and lived the longest, dying at 95.
The State Historic Preservation Office oversees the National Register of Historic Places program in Iowa in conjunction with the National Park Service. The State Historic Preservation Office is part of the State Historical Society of Iowa, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.
Learn more about Iowa's historic treasures by downloading the Iowa Culture App.
The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and its three divisions – the Iowa Arts Council, Produce Iowa - State Office of Media Production and the State Historical Society of Iowa – empower Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to the people, places and points of pride that define our state. The department’s work enables Iowa to be recognized as a state that fosters creativity and serves as a catalyst for innovation where the stories of Iowa are preserved and communicated to connect past, present and future generations.