Iowa is full of churches of all denominations and sizes. They are all beautiful in their own way, but there’s one that particularly stands out for its uniqueness.
St. Anthony of Padua Chapel, also known as the World's Smallest Church, can be found in Festina. The diminutive chapel measures 14 by 20 feet with a belfry of 40 feet. The church features stained glass windows and four pews; it seats a total of eight to 10 people. A small altar at the front of the chapel displays a statue of St. Anthony of Padua holding baby Jesus.
The historical marker in the front of the building reads:
"On this site in 1849 the first Catholic Mission north of Dubuque was first built of logs. In 1885 nearby landowners quarried stone and built the little chapel. Construction resulted from a vow by Johann Gaertner’s mother to build a chapel should her son, who was drafted into the French army and served under Napoleon, return safely from the Russian campaign. Relatives of Frank Huber maintain the chapel and grounds, which includes the grave of Johann Gaertner."
While Johann Gaertner's mother never personally fulfilled her vow, her son carried it out for her. After Johann emigrated to Iowa, he saw to it that his mother's end of her bargain with God was held up.
Gaertner donated $75 in 1886 which was used to purchase the wood for the church's construction. He was 92 at the time and died the following year. He is buried here along with several of his family members. Gaertner is thought to be the only soldier who served under Napoleon Bonaparte to be buried in Iowa.
A nearby statue of Our Lady of Seven Dolors commemorates another soldier; this time, one who never came home. U.S. Army Tech. Sgt. Cyril F. Schneberger donated the statue, asking that it be placed at the site of the old mission should he not return from WWII. He died in the Philippines in 1945, and his wish, like the wish of Gaertner's mother, was faithfully carried out.
This tiny church is very popular with tourists; an estimated 3,000 people stop by each year. The visitor's register is full of names from all over the world. Mass is held here just once a year, every June, to celebrate the Feast of St. Anthony of Padua.
So is this petite chapel really the smallest in the world? Several churches claim that title and St. Anthony’s is not the tiniest of them, though it may very well have been when it was built. That it isn’t the smallest in the world does not decrease the feeling of peace and wonder that one experiences upon visiting. This little chapel, built of a mother’s vow and a son’s survival, is a wonderful place to visit regardless of your faith.