Wednesday got off to a rough start. At 5:30 in the morning, the hookers in the room next to mine were fighting with their pimp. This woke me up. Unable to get back to sleep, I decided to go ahead and start my day, so I jumped in the shower, which, for some reason, triggered the smoke alarm. I rushed through the shampoo and rinse cycle, no repeating, then quickly dried off and ripped the damn battery out of the damn smoke detector.
As I grabbed clean clothes out of my backpack, I realized that I forgot to pack socks and underwear. I really wasn’t too bothered by any of this, other than that stupid smoke alarm ruining my morning shower. I checked out of the motel, did a little shopping at the 24-hour Wal-Mart in Galena, then found a nice little coffee shop with WiFi; all was good in the world. A little patience can pay off.
Just ask the folks in southwest Wisconsin about patience. A little piece of history was rotting away in a small town on a back road, forgotten by time and far removed from the tourist trail. St. Augustine Church is a frame church with strong Greek Revival influences and Gothic embellishments, just 50 feet long and 30 feet wide. When the church was built in 1844, the community of New Diggings was in the middle of a robust lead mining industry and a very wild place. Thousands of miners lived in camps, drank lots of alcohol, and visited prostitutes, who may also have been arguing with their pimps in the early morning hours. Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, the remarkable Dominican missionary and the resident priest for the region, designed the church and supervised its construction. By 1849, the mining boom was over and the population in the region dropped and the little wooden church turned out to be the perfect size for the downsized community.
The parish kept plugging along until 1925 when the Diocese consolidated St. Augustine with St. Patrick in nearby Benton. The church was abandoned and remained so until the Mazzuchelli Assembly 4th Degree Knights of Columbus stepped in to save the old church in 1959. In the early years, they raised enough money to repair the building’s foundation and to replace the roof but never had the money for a complete restoration. That all changed a few years ago when the Knights realized that more aggressive actions would be needed to ensure the long-term integrity of the structure. They raised $25,000 for a historical building survey, which concluded that a complete restoration would cost nearly $500,000.
Fast forward to 2008 and it is clear that the Knights have been supremely successful in their efforts. While it is obvious that the church has been through a makeover, it still feels like a 19th century building – right down to the lack of modern conveniences such as electricity, running water, and heat. The church still has its original pews, altar, and confessional as designed by Father Sam. The historic Meneely bell is safely tucked away in the restored bell tower, ready to serve the community for another 100 years.
The latest restoration effort was completed in 2007 – a fresh coat of exterior paint. That may not sound like much, but this is not your ordinary coat of paint. The church exterior was painted with a rusticated finish, a technique meant to give the appearance of stone. In the 18th and 19th centuries, this was not an uncommon practice: Thomas Jefferson used it at Monticello, as did Washington at Mount Vernon. Ron Koenig, the building conservator extraordinaire explained that the process involves several steps. A first coat of paint is applied that has some color to it, in this case three colors to replicate what was originally applied, followed by a glaze, or clear coat, on top of the color. Before the glaze is dry, sand is blown onto it to create the finished look. Horizontal and vertical lines are marked off and left unglazed so that the sand does not stick. When the process is finished, the church looks like an impressive stone structure, a look that Father Mazzuchelli may have chosen to entice the miners from the bars and brothels and into the sanctuary.
If you are in the neighborhood, and Galena is only 15 minutes away, swing by and visit this gem. From Galena, the easiest route is to take Illinois Highway 84 north into Wisconsin, then go east on County Highway W at Hazel Green. When you reach the New Diggings General Store, turn right, then left at the top of the hill. From June 1 to the end of October, the church is open on Sunday afternoons from 1-4. If you want to visit at some other time, contact George Burns (608.965.4517) to make arrangements. He’ll take good care of you.
Today’s Bad Decision: I brake for mailboxes, really cool unique ones. This happened on US 52 north of Dubuque last week. Unfortunately, the road didn’t have much of a shoulder, so stopping was not exactly a good idea. I did it anyway. Lucky for me, I can take pics quickly, and there wasn’t enough traffic to worry about causing a head-on collision. I promise to be more careful next time.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2008
**Read more about Father Mazzuchelli in Road Tripping Along the Great River Road, Vol. 1. Click the link above for more. Disclosure: This website may be compensated for linking to other sites or for sales of products we link to.
If you like the content at the Mississippi Valley Traveler, please consider showing your support by making a one-time contribution or by subscribing through Patreon. Book sales don’t fully cover my costs, and I don’t have deep corporate pockets bankrolling my work. I’m a freelance writer bringing you stories about life along the Mississippi River. I need your help to keep this going. Every dollar you contribute makes it possible for me to continue sharing stories about America’s Greatest River!