Wayfarers traveling the Great River Road in northeastern Iowa find a hamlet called St. Donatus, a rural community with roots in the small European country of Luxembourg. Its main point of interest, on a wooded hill above town, is the Outdoor Way of the Cross and Pieta Chapel, a reminder of Luxembourger immigrants who settled the area in the mid-19th century.
Spread across the hillside behind St. Donatus Catholic Church and its historic cemetery, the Way of the Cross is believed to be the first of its kind in America. The 14 red-brick alcoves along the path winding up the mound were built in 1861 under the direction of Father J. Flammang, pastor of the church and an immigrant from Koerich, Luxembourg. Each brick station, adorned with white scalloped trim, has an original lithographic print depicting an event in Jesus’ last day in Jerusalem, including the times when He fell carrying the Cross and the placing of His body into the tomb. Walking under the shade of hickory, oak, pine and juniper trees on the trek to the top, pilgrims may see sheep providing old-fashioned lawn care.
Pieta Chapel on Calvary Mound commands panoramic views of the countryside. Built in 1885 with funds left by Fr. Flammang and dedicated in his memory, the tiny chapel has four rows of pews and an altarpiece of Mary holding Jesus’ body (the Pieta). Surrounded by a white wooden fence, the chapel is modeled after the Chapel du Bildchen in Vianden, Luxembourg.
In the church cemetery below, you will see many grave stones inscribed with the birth towns of Luxembourgers who came to Iowa in the 1800s.
The current St. Donatus Church was built in 1858, but the interior was remodeled after a fire in 1907. On the right side altar is the shrine of Our Lady of Consolation, also known as Our Lady of Luxembourg (patroness of Luxembourg). Though such a statue normally would be on the left side, it was placed on the right because the parishioner who purchased the new statue after the 1907 fire sat on that side.
The first settler from Luxembourg arrived in the area in 1838 and by 1848 there was a considerable number of Luxembourg families making up St. Donatus, a small village with fewer than 200 residents today. There are 18 original limestone buildings from the 1840s and ’50s still standing, many of them private homes. Some are partly covered in stucco, in Luxembourger style.
One of the old buildings is the 1848 Gehlen House, now a bed and breakfast inn with rooms named after cities in Luxembourg. It was formerly a post office, hotel, trading post, tavern, grocery store, gas station, doll museum and family residence. The flags of Luxembourg, America and Iowa fly on poles next to the Gehlen House. The stone barn behind the house is believed to be the oldest barn in Iowa.
The town’s Blacksmith Shop, open by appointment, has been used as such since at least 1885.
Across the Great River Road (Highway 52) from the Gehlen House is Kalmes Restaurant, a center of social life in St. Donatus and keeper of Luxembourg traditions. Its walls are decorated with current and historical scenes of Luxembourg and photos of early immigrants. Now in its fifth generation of Kalmes family ownership, it also serves as a food store, bar and gas station. The back dining room is newer and ideal for groups. Décor includes a coat of arms, a diorama of a Luxembourg village and photos of castles, towns and the Grand Duke. (The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is bordered by France, Belgium and Germany.)
Kalmes Restaurant is the hub of festivities on Luxembourg National Day in America, celebrated every year on or near June 23 (the date of National Day in Luxembourg). The National Day meal includes triepen (blood sausage without casing), wienerschnitzel, homemade noodles, potato pancakes, sour red cabbage, and homemade bread and desserts.
The restaurant’s regular menu is fairly standard, featuring steak, seafood, chicken, sandwiches and pizza. Its “Luxembourg Classics” section includes wienerschnitzel, pork sausage sandwich and ground steak with cream of mushroom. Many locals come to buy the homemade sausage and head cheese.
Visitors can try the sausage at the Sunday breakfast buffet, which features pancakes, French toast sticks, hash browns with cheese sauce, scrambled eggs and soft, chewy cinnamon rolls (it’s hard to eat just one).
St. Donatus (pronounced “do-NAE-tus) is located in Jackson County, about 10 minutes from the Mississippi River. It’s about 20 minutes south of Dubuque and 10 minutes north of Bellevue, a small Mississippi River town where visitors can browse antique shops and watch barges go through the locks. Bellevue State Park offers fine views of the river valley.
For area tourist information, visit jacksoncountyiowa.com.
–By Randy Mink