By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor
CAMERON — Martin Murphy, George Ann (Sigrist) Dove and James Cline, “best friends since diapers,” sat together at the first Fish Fry of this Lenten season at St. Munchin Parish March 3. The three shared memories, stories, hugs and laughter about the hometown Catholic church and community that they have all loved for going on 91 years, an ongoing love sparked generations ago.
Cameron’s first settler, John Stone, arrived in 1828, but the man who followed Stone, Isaac Baldwin, who arrived in 1830, is credited with founding the town.
In the 1840s, few Catholics lived in Clinton and Livingston counties in northwest Missouri, two of 32 counties in the state without a Catholic church or a priest. Jesuit missionaries and an occasional visiting priest from St. Joseph would celebrate Mass, baptize, bury or marry as requested, but often it was several years between visits.
Beginning in 1846, Father Thomas Scanlon of St. Joseph celebrated Mass every couple of weeks at Michael O’Brien’s section house near the town that would be named Cameron. Then in 1857, a young Irish priest named Father John Joseph Hogan prevailed upon his archbishop, Peter Richard Kenrick, to allow him to travel into the interior of the region to find Catholics to minister to, which he undertook that summer.
Construction on the Hannibal-St. Joseph Railroad had begun in 1852, and attracted railroad gangs, often of Irish and German heritage, to work on the grading and laying of the tracks. While the railroad was under construction, area residents depended on horses, buggies and wagons and oxen for heavy loads. Father Hogan had the foresight to realize that the construction gangs, who were often Catholic, would likely settle in the town once the railroad was complete, and they would bring their families with them or start families. A priest and a church would be needed.
He recorded his travels, adventures, mishaps, and many private thoughts in his 1892 book “On the Mission in Missouri.” He recounted establishing a mission at Cameron served from Chillicothe to accommodate the Catholic railroad gangs and the dozen or so Catholic families in the area. Father Hogan rode a borrowed horse named John the Baptist or walked to reach them.
One tale from the book, Father Hogan’s adventure fording the north-flowing Grindstone River near Cameron, sprang to life in a time-worn photograph, taken about 1930. Martin Murphy pointed to a group of small boys, knee-deep in the water, playing almost exactly where the future Bishop Hogan had crossed the river 60 some odd years earlier. The photo matches the site’s description in the book.
When the railroad was completed from Hannibal to St. Joseph in 1859, Father Hogan devised a missionary timetable showing dates when Masses would be celebrated in Chillicothe, Macon City, Brookfield, Mexico and Cameron. Because there was no church in Cameron, and still very few Catholics, Mass would be celebrated on the last day of months having five Sundays, or five times a year.
He was able to travel by rail without charge; it was still uncomfortable, noisy and dangerous, especially during the Civil war years.
Father Hogan speaks: “Many a time my heart more than my lips spoke a grateful ‘God bless you,’ to some poor brakeman or conductor, who more in need of rest himself than I folded his overcoat or his blanket and put it softly under my head to rest me as I lay on the hard board seat of the caboose car, overcome by fatigue of several days and nights of labor and travel.”
In Oct. 1866, Father Hogan purchased a tract of land for $50 from several owners for a church in Cameron. A simple frame 40’ x 20’ church was constructed in Chillicothe and shipped by rail to Cameron.
The parish was formally established in 1867 and named in honor of the late 6th century founder of Father Hogan’s home county and that of many of the railroad men and settlers from Ireland, St. Munchin (Little Monk) of Limerick, the only Catholic church in North America so named.
The church, which cost about $2,000 to construct and ship, was set on the lot facing a dirt road, with hitching posts on the west side. A cross atop the church could be seen from some distance away. The church was completed in the summer of 1868, about the time a second railroad connection was finished, this time the Kansas City branch of the Hannibal-St. Joseph railroad from Cameron to Harlem on the north bank of the Missouri River. The Hannibal Bridge would be built in 1869, bringing new prominence to Kansas City and more importance to Cameron.
Also in 1868, Father Hogan was notified by the Holy See that he was appointed first bishop of the new Diocese of St. Joseph. Father Thomas Ledwith traveled from Liberty twice monthly in 1868-69 to celebrate Mass at St. Munchin’s. The first resident priest, Father James Foley arrived in 1870. He remained not quite a year, and was replaced by Father Thomas Walsh in 1871 followed by three short-term pastors.
Cemetery land was purchased in 1869, and the earliest burial was that of Patrick J. Brown, Irish civil war veteran.
In 1880, Bishop Hogan was again notified by the Holy See that he was appointed first bishop of the diocese of Kansas City; he would remain administrator of the St. Joseph diocese until another bishop was appointed. Bishop Hogan died in 1913.
It was in 1893, during the pastorate of Father James Reilly, 1887-1899, that the current brick church was built.
Names of many of today’s parish families appear on parish community rosters from those early years, including Murphy, Dove and Cline. Patrick Murphy, Martin’s grandfather, emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland about 1877. The 17-year old settled in Plattsburg, saved some money and sent for his brother Michael.
The Murphy brothers were farmers, but when the railroads began criss-crossing the area and fixing county boundaries, Murphy men also became railroad men. Martin would later work for the Burlington Railroad, while keeping ownership of the family farm, where his children were raised.
George Ann Dove speaks: “We were all born in 1926, and I believe the earliest memory we share is First Communion. How old were we? Maybe 8 or 10. Father Wogan was the pastor. I remember he opened the gates between the communion rails so we could enter the sanctuary and receive First Communion on the altar steps. It was pretty special. After Mass, we and our parents ate breakfast together in the dining room of the priest’s house.”
George Ann and Jim Cline both attended St. Rita’s School, which opened first in a small hotel and later in a house next door to the church in 1924, taught by the Sisters of the Holy Ghost (now Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate) and later the Sisters of St. Francis of Clinton, Iowa. St. Rita was a special devotion of Father Richard Cullen, pastor of St. Munchin’s 1899-1924.
Martin’s father had traded a 160-acre farm in Iowa, where it was too cold, for 3 farms totaling 480 acres outside Cameron. Martin grew up a “country child,” and the rural school let out for summer a month before St. Rita’s. For that annual month, Martin also attended St. Rita’s, learning about his faith.
All three participated in the St. Munchin’s Children’s Choir, chanting the choir’s parts of the Mass once or twice a month. George Ann recalled “playing a treadle organ in the choir loft. I had to climb narrow, steep stairs to get to it. It was a little scary, but I was young.”
Jim Cline “went out to Montana” as a youth, to work on a sheep farm, but returned several years later.
The friends all married at St. Munchin’s Church; their children were baptized, received First Communion and Confirmation, and later married from St. Munchin’s. “Our folks were buried from the church,” Martin added.
Over the years, there were small changes to the church, but nothing major until the church was renovated about 10 years ago. Father Paul Turner contracted to add a narthex to the church entrance, restore and move a stained-glass window to the new wall, and add indoor restrooms.
The church has been opened up, storage and decorative spaces added and enlarged.
Now, under the pastorate of Father Louis Farley, the stained-glass windows are being restored. Wade Walchak, owner of Sentimental Art Glass Company, Belton, said that when they were first constructed, the paint wasn’t fired at the right temperature, and so faded over the ensuing century. The leading stretched over time, but didn’t retract, creating bulges. The windows are being painstakingly restored back to their original color and beauty. Clear glass will be placed over the outside windows to prevent breakage and wind damage.
Jim speaks: “This is a parish of friendship, of sharing love with one another, which began 150 years ago, a gift that keeps giving. We worked hard, we played hard, we took care of business that had to be taken care of, and our word was our bond. It made for terrific friendships in this parish.”
George Ann speaks: “St. Munchin’s, this parish, this community, is part of my life, and has been for 91 years. I don’t know or want to know anything different.”
Martin sat quietly, listening to his life-long friends and nodding in agreement.