Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Mission the church that Latinos built in Muscatine

Father Buechele and Juan Cadena found a common bond through their love of music and their work as advocates for the Hispanic community.

By Juan Fourneau, Hola America

It took over a decade to turn Muscatine’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Mission into reality. Hopes, dreams, and prayers can do a lot, but to raise over $200,000 needed to make it happen took more than lighting a candle. It required the commitment of a small group of people who organized and worked tirelessly throughout the 1970’s and fundraised their way towards a parish they could call home.

Gloria Casas remembers arriving in Muscatine as a migrant worker with her family in the late 60’s. “My dad was a strong Catholic and when we came here, he took us to St. Mary’s [Catholic Church]. We would come home after working at Harold Timm’s farm picking tomatoes on Sundays and change clothes.” Though at times she felt out of place at St. Mary’s, Casas remembers the parishioners being nice. After marrying her husband Paul, they settled in Muscatine.


Meanwhile, Juan Cadena, a young Mexican-American inspired by the burgeoning Chicano movement, was working for The Poverty People Alliance in Saginaw, Michigan. Cadena attended a meeting at Notre Dame in Indiana, where he met Sister Irene, Sister Molly, and Father Thomas, who worked at a church in Muscatine. They encouraged Cadena to apply for a job in the town. Cadena moved to Muscatine in January of 1971 to be the director of The Muscatine Migrant Committee. He asked his young girlfriend Marta to join him. She was a student at Michigan State, so she earned her degree that spring, the young couple wed and made Muscatine their home.

A few years later, Cadena’s young daughter asked why he didn’t join them at mass. He reluctantly agreed to go, but said to his wife, “I’ll go, but I’m going to sit in the back and bring a newspaper.” Once there, Cadena was again impressed by Father Thomas, who was also a talented musician who sang and played the guitar. They soon found a common bond through their love of music and their work as advocates for the Hispanic community.  

Juan Cadena, the once hesitant churchgoer, was ordained as a permanent deacon in January 1982

As more Latinos settled in Muscatine, it became clear that it was time to add a Spanish mass. Casas recalls, “There was an interest, Father [Thomas] Buechele and Sister Molly began to have masses at the migrant camps, baptizing babies.”


“Many of the migrant workers didn’t have transportation,” remembers Sister Molly. “We would bless the people, the crops, we would have mass at the camps.”

At that time, priest assignments lasted longer than they do today, and Casas felt that since Father Buechele had stayed in Muscatine for a decade, it helped get things done for the Catholic Latinos in the area. One of the first steps they took was to send Father Tom Buechele to Cuernavaca, Mexico to learn Spanish. In addition, some Mexican-American nuns from West Des Moines become critically helpful. “Sister Irene and Sister Molly were very instrumental because they were attached to an order of nuns who were associated with the diocese and the bishop at the time,” says Marta Cadena. Their support moved things along.

The Spanish mass led the parish to grow alongside the Hispanic population. More migrant families settled in Muscatine and other Latinos arrived from Mexico and Texas, in search of the well-paying jobs that were available in the manufacturing town.


The dream of their own place grew from these humble beginnings, but it soon became clear the biggest challenge would be the cost to secure a building for their ambition. One thing the group could count on was the community’s love of Mexican food. They used that love to fundraise their way towards making their goal a reality. Numerous families from the church spent many hot summer days and nights fixing tacos for the annual Great River Days festivities in an effort to meet their goal. In addition, they organized car washes and yard sales for extra funds. Paul Casas helped secure a donated car they raffled off to raise the funds needed to build the Guadalupe Mission. 

On December 12th, 1981, in a modest new building in the heart of Muscatine, the dream of a small group of dedicated Catholics was realized. Coinciding with the celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the new church center was inaugurated. Several months before the grand opening, Juan Cadena, the once hesitant churchgoer, was ordained as a permanent deacon in late January. Another local Latino, Juan Leza, who was 67 at the time and a father of 11, was also ordained as a deacon. Leza built the Guadalupe Mission’s first altar. His son remembers how proud his father was of the new building and his role as a deacon. “As a family, we were all so happy to have our own building. My dad and Juan Cadena also helped as deacons in West Liberty and Columbus Junction.” Marta Cadena recalls the joy they all felt, “We were ecstatic. We did it! We felt ownership.” Casas recalls a powerful moment in particular that stood out to her, “When they put the bell and the cross up, it finally looked like a little church. For us Hispanics to have built that, we were very proud, we could say we were going to mass at our own church.”

After many challenges, Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission merged with St. Mary & Mathias in 2005.

Facebook Comments