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SAVING ST. MARY’S: Volunteers recover relics of former Catholic school in Waterloo

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john and maryann
John Hayes and MaryAnn Nolan stand within St. Mary's at the start of the project.
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Hayes holds a piece of the pipe organ he learned to play on as a child.
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Nolan and Hayes spent about 100 hours each salvaging what was left within.
Hayes joked with Nolan that he wouldn't leave a single window behind.
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Various friends, former students, and parishioners all assisted with the project.
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A second story hallway within St. Mary's.
classroom
A decaying classroom sits empty within St. Mary's.
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WATERLOO, Iowa (KWWL) -- Since December 2020, volunteers have sifted through the debris and decay of the former St. Mary's Catholic school in Waterloo in order to preserve what history they could.

Alums John Hayes and MaryAnn Nolan led the effort, each put in about 100 hours for the project. Nolan says they let their hearts lead them.

"We just couldn't bear to see all of those things of sentimental value just be leveled," Nolan said.

Hayes agrees, saying they wanted to save what was left within the decaying building. Pews, organ pipes, stained glass, and more were all saved in their efforts. Many of the mementos are now in the hands of former students and parishioners.

"I was an organist here for years," Hayes said.

The two refer to St. Mary's as being a community staple in its prime. Both attended school there and grew up in the church, making this a true labor of love.

There is a stark difference between the photos they took when they began last winter and now. The sanctuary is littered with pieces of the pews they couldn't save, torn hymnals, and pieces of glass which Nolan collects to give as small souvenirs.

"We were just so happy to know that those things wouldn't be destroyed," Nolan said.

Two statues remain on the front of the school. Hayes and Nolan say they don't currently have the resources to remove the concrete statues.

"They're in a little rough shape, but we're still hopeful that something will come along to help us get those down and possibly restore them depending on the shape and maybe put them somewhere," Hayes said.

Ideally, he would like to see them added to another local church or cemetery. A large angel once on the campus is now located outside Columbus Catholic High School in Waterloo. The move was facilitated by the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus. The statue had been dedicated to the five Sullivan brothers who surprisingly changed the plan of Hayes and Nolan.

"It's gone a direction we never even thought it would," Hayes said.

The five Sullivan brothers, known for their sacrifice in World War II, attended the school and church. Their only living descendant, Kelly Sullivan of Cedar Falls, reached out to Nolan to offer her support. She also facilitated adding artifacts from the school to the various memorial sites honoring her family.

Sullivan was quoted in a recent article in the Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier, saying it was incredible to see how happy the prospects of the exhibits made the alumni.

“This can be a way we can bring all the museums together,” she said in the article. “We’re blessed that so many people, not just throughout the United States but throughout the world, are interested in the story of this ultimate sacrifice. The Sullivans represent so many who sacrificed. There’re so many different incredible museums who talk about that. Now, it’s going to be awesome. How wonderful to have St. Mary’s — this beautiful church that the Sullivan boys and their parents attended and were very connected to — in three states."

Pat Kinney with the Grout Museum District penned that article, detailing some of the history surrounding the former school and church.

While the building is set to be demolished in 2022 and the museum exhibits aren't quite ready, the alumni who pursued such a major undertaking are content with the ending of this story.

"To know that some of the stuff will be preserved in history forever along with the Five Sullivan Brothers monuments. It's just… I couldn't have expected a better outcome. We couldn't have expected a better outcome," Hayes said.

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Taylor Vessel

Multimedia Reporter

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