By Sara Kraft
A parish needs “dedicated parishioners” in order to survive 125 years, explained St. Mary Parochial Administrator Fr. Matthew Rotert. St. Mary’s parishioners are “generous and really passionate about the parish. So many things are not permanent in this world today, so the fact the parish has survived for 125 years is remarkable.”
What is now known as St. Mary Parish began in 1891 when Bishop Hogan assigned the new parish in St. Joseph, Missouri to the Benedictine Fathers of Conception, Missouri. The parish was originally to have the name of St. Benedict, but was soon changed to St. Mary’s. Fr. Dominic Wagner, O.S.B. was in charge of founding and leading St. Mary. Seven city lots were purchased, and construction was begun in July 1891 for one building with two floors. The first floor had two classrooms for the school and two rooms for living quarters for the pastor. The auditorium on the second floor was furnished for worship with a seating capacity of 240 people. The building was finished in December 1891 and cost $5,862 including the land and was dedicated December 20, 1891. Shortly after Christmas, the school opened with approximately 36 students and was staffed by Benedictine nuns. This region of St. Joseph was undeveloped at this time. There were no sewage or electric lights available, and water had to be piped several hundred feet to be brought into the church.
The ladies of the parish were very creative in their funding of the parish. They held a fair to raise money for the church. The first fair raised $1,870, approximately thirty percent of the cost of the land and building. One hundred and twenty-five years later, the fair has turned into a Fall Festival which is held annually to raise funds for the parish. Shortly after Fr. Dominic’s departure from St. Mary’s in 1895, St. Mary Parish was staffed by diocesan priests.
Over the years, numerous improvements were made to the parish. In 1900, a two story house, originally used for a rectory and later used for the nuns, was built to the north of the church and original school building. This new building cost $3000 and included modern conveniences such as electricity and a telephone. Improvements were made to the church and school building including a high altar. The school was reopened by the Sisters of the Society of the Precious Blood after a period of closure from 1898-1900.
In 1904, Fr. James Power Brady became pastor, a position he would hold for the next 52 years. In 1911, a new rectory was built (still in use today after a recent renovation) due to the generosity of Fr. Brady’s parents. The sisters then occupied the old rectory. Ground was broken for the present day church in 1912. It was completed in the spring of 1913 at a cost of $32,000 and was patterned after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Stained glass windows were added in 1921. In 1925 scriptural references including artwork representing the four evangelists were added. It was remodeled again in the 1970s and in 1981. Two years ago, it was repainted, and this year’s Fall Festival raised money for additional renovations to the sanctuary with the goal to replace some carpet.
There are three bells hanging in the belfry. The first bell was a gift from James Ellingwood. James, a Methodist, bought the bell when Francis Street Methodist Church built their own new Church because its tone was finer than any other church bell with the exception of the Cathedral. He gave the bell to St. Mary so he could hear the bell ring at his residence. The smallest bell hung in the first Catholic Church in St. Joseph and was later placed in the Cathedral. The third bell was the first Catholic church bell in Nodaway County and was bought for the monastery at Conception Abbey. Because the bell did not properly harmonize with the chimes, it was presented to St. Mary Parish.
In 1929, a new school was built to accommodate the increased number of pupils. The first floor had 5 large classrooms. The second floor was an auditorium. It cost $57,000. The school closed in 1969. Currently, the school facilities are being used for the Head Start program, religious education classes, and North Town Community Center. In 1957, the parish hall was blessed and dedicated. It was named Monsignor Brady Hall.
After 125 years, St. Mary Parish continues to inspire its parishioners to a deeper relationship with God. “Well, my faith life started from Confirmation class here (at St. Mary’s). It gave me people to talk about my faith and connect with,” stated college freshman Cassandra Jimenez. St. Mary Parish “gave me a daily prayer life. We pray the rosary before Mass and it inspired me to pray the rosary more.”
Just like its people, St. Mary is a parish which has weathered challenges in its 125 years but still stands strong. “I have had some struggles, including losing my husband. Everyone rallied around. That’s just what we do,” explained Kay Currier. “We’ve been here 125 years, and we’re looking forward to the next 125 years.”