The Story of the World’s Smallest Church

The “Smallest Church in the World,” St. Anthony of Padua Chapel is in Winneshiek County, Iowa. It is a Catholic church and seats eight people. My informant, who is my Grandfather, told me the story of how the world’s smallest church came to be, which we had a family reunion at a couple years ago. The setting of the interview is my informant’s living room in a small town of Benson, MN. The “third party” was my Grandmother interjecting into the conversation.  My informant is very interested in family history, so he visits people in various towns and looks up archives to collect the family stories. He has been accumulating more stories and more details of the stories since my mother was a young girl. The conversation is as follows:

Me: Wait, do you know the story of the smallest church?

Third person: We’ve been there.

Informant: I don’t know if Rebecca has been there has she?

Me: Yes I have for the family Reunion. Anyways, what was the story of St. Anthony?

Informant: The story of Saint Anthony was uh, there was this guy, whos mothers said, uh what was his name…Gaertner. Johann Gaertner. He was drafted into the army with Napoleon, he was only 16 years old. But he was a rather big guy, 6 foot tall. So they made him a military police to take care of Napoleon when he was out and about. Anyways, his mother said that if he came back safely, she would build a chapel in honor of our lady. Well, he did come home from the war safely, she never built the chapel, he immigrated to the united states and his daughter said when he was 90 years old that, “you better get that chapel built before you die” and so that’s how we got the chapel built. He donated the first money and the stone, and… And uh they got the chapel built in fulfillment of his mother’s promise. And then they named it, they asked what should we name it? And some priest said, “well, name if after your alleged relative St. Anthony. Your [Rebecca’s] ancestor. So that’s what they did. And every year on the feast day of June 16th or whatever day St. Anthony is they have an annual meeting. So if you want to go down next year, I might be going! That was the story! Yep. They were supposed to build a chapel in honor of our lady and so the daughter is the one that got it done, not the mother.

Me: The daughter of the guy?

Informant: Yes the daughter of the guy. And 5 years ago, some relatives from Minneapolis came down with a gun… that this guy used in the Napoleonic War. So that was kind of interesting. It wasn’t a hand gun, it was a long riffle kind of a thing.

My informant tells this story because he is interested in history, but most importantly because it tells of our family history. He is the one person in the family that knows everything about our family history. He researches our ancestries and makes family trees as well as visit historical sites in various cities to find documents and records or certain events. This is difficult to do because our family is from a small town in Iowa, and we are not in any way famous so the stories are not well documented. My informant heard this story from his mother. My informant also modifies the stories as he learns more information. This is an example of family lore; my family even had a family reunion at the site of the church. My informant tells these stories to his children, in laws, nieces, and nephews when they visit Iowa and we all share the stories with each other. Most of my family knows this story, or at least that we are connected to the church, but my informant is definitely the active bearer; he is the one that we verify the facts with in any family story.