If you ask people in Dubuque about St. Peter Lutheran Church, they're likely to mention the distinctive mosaic on the outside of the sanctuary. Clearly visible to passersby from Asbury Road, the mosaic illustrates some of the most memorable Bible stories about the life of St. Peter.
As the 1950's came to an end, artist Edmund Demers of Clarke College was contacted by John Walker, then pastor St. Peter Lutheran Church in Dubuque. Pastor Walker envisioned an exceptional work of art for the new St. Peter church building being planned for the Asbury Road site. Demers, who was already known for several projects of mostly religious subjects, conceived an idea using mosaic as the medium for the new building.
The artist selected eight moments in the life of St. Peter, the congregation's namesake:
New Testament verses pertinent to the images would occupy the space above and below the figures. The mosaic would cover an area measuring 32 by 43 feet (about 400 square feet).
Soon the concept took shape. The facade would be divided into four vertical panels separated by vertical courses of brickwork; a larger panel in the center would feature the Risen Lord. Being the largest project he'd ever undertaken, he also had to think of a practical and economic procedure while still achieving an aesthetically satisfying end.
In the interest of economy, Demers ordered commercially available ceramic tile in small sizes, namely one-inch squares and three-quarter by one and a half inch rectangles, all roughly three-sixteenths of an inch in thickness. The completed mosaic required approximately 80,000 pieces of tile.
Tile nippers with replaceable carborundum steel blades were required to cut the tiles into the smaller pieces needed. As it turned out, the area of cut and uncut tiles would turn out to be roughly the same in the finished work. (Each piece was about the size of a domino.) The matte finish of the tile and limited range of earth colors would be compatible with the proposed brick and stone.
As for the layout, a role of kraft paper three or four feet wide was obtained from a Dubuque wholesaler and an Ohio company furnished the tub of adhesive used to mount the tiles on the paper. Vacant quarters fronting on Fifth Street were rented by Demers for use as a studio. With a large work table on casters and ample shelves to store the work, he was ready to start.
Since the images and lettering had to be glued down in reverse in order to read correctly when the paper would be peeled off the installed mosaic, Demers used mirrors to see the work as it would appear on the facade. The process of cutting, gluing and mounting the tiles was tedious, but easy in comparison to the process of designing and composing of the artwork.
Demers' design depicted St. Peter as a burly working man with the short, gray beard of traditional inconography. In addition, the crossed keys, emblematic of St. Peter (Matthew 16:19), complemented the geometry of the overall plan.
Below the central image of Christ would be a quotation Pastor Walker had emphasized in their discussions: "Feed my lambs-feed my sheep," an abbreviated reference to John 21:16-17.
Demers, now retired and living in New Hampshire, remembers well the day the mosaic was installed. A steady, hot, very dry wind blew out of the southwest, making work difficult for the tile setter since the grout was setting too quickly. In spite of this, his exceptional work was skillfully installed and remains a landmark of ecclesiastical art in the Dubuque region.