Among the beautiful rolling hills and the winding Turkey River, two miles west of Festina Iowa, a crowd gathers each year in June for the annual mass and Huber-Gaertner reunion, beside the limestone chapel of St. Anthony of Padua. Open to the public, the mass is held close to the patron saint’s feast day each year.
Popularly known as The Smallest Church, it was built because of a mother’s promise for the hope of the return of her son from war. Johann Gaertner arrived safely home after miraculously surviving the battles of Moscow (1812) and Waterloo (1815) while serving in the French army under Napoleon. Johann’s mother did not live to see the promised church built. Johann Gaertner brought his family to the United States in 1836 and settled near Festina in 1849. The chapel was built in 1885, two years later Johann died at age 94. The Smallest Church was built on the abandoned Old Mission Church site near Festina.
Keeping the grounds and chapel in order for the tourist season, besides planning the annual mass and reunion is no small task for the Gaertner-Huber relatives. Mary Richmond of Hawkeye, great great granddaughter of Johann, sends out an elaborate family newsletter beforehand, keeping track of the family tree, besides planning the mass, and preparing the chapel. Mary’s parents, Frank J.A. and Alona Huber, are buried in the cemetery near the church.
There is a nice picnic area provided for tourists, with a cookout grill and picnic table between the church grounds and the Turkey River, giving visitors a shady spot to relax and eat lunch, or maybe even fish.
Art Huber, of Ft. Atkinson, great great grandson of Johann Gaertner, was instrumental in the restoring and moving of the old cabin to the church yard in 1996. The cabin was once part of the Indian Agency and was used as a dwelling for the F.J. Huber family when they arrived at the Old Mission in 1849. The cabin once stood a mile southwest of the present site and was in use by the Huber descendants until 1965. Art, even at age 91, still oversees many aspects of the historic site and family reunion. Art also mentioned the Old Mission church bell was rescued after the fire and is now in the Ft. Atkinson Museum. The Smallest Church and grounds is truly a tribute to the devotion of family by maintaining and preserving the historic site.
Because the limestone chapel is only twenty feet by fourteen feet, and seats only eight people, mass is held annually in the yard behind the chapel instead of inside, for relatives of the Gaertner-Huber family and anyone else who would like to attend. In the small yard, nestled between farmland, are the graves of Johann Gaertner and his wife, Magdalen (Bouillon), who was a relative of the gentle saint of Padua, among graves of relatives and other pioneers.
St. Anthony of Padua is the patron saint of lost things. Many Huber relatives have stories about missing articles that suddenly turned up after the fruitful plea was recited, “Tony, Tony, turn around. Something’s lost and must be found.”
These days another generation of mothers are walking through St. Anthony of Padua Church adorned with sun filled stain glass windows that Johann’s daughter, Mary Ann Huber donated before her death in 1902, understanding the tribute of a mother’s gratitude for God’s watchful eye over the soldier son, along with a granddaughter’s hard work to follow through and preserve the promise. Also understanding maybe a greater tribute is being made by succeeding generations by maintaining and preserving the family history, as newer generations of mothers will await the safe return of their children from a different land of conflict in history.