"From St. Peter in Mendota (1840), an offshoot of the early fur trade, to St. Ambrose of Woodbury (1998), created by the rapid suburban growth of the 1990s, the story of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis extends in a broad sweep over the past 150-plus years. Encompassing 12 counties, 6,187 square miles and a Catholic population of over 750,000, the archdiocese currently contains 228 parishes. This book profiles the history of these parishes."
— From the introduction to Gather Us In
In November 1998, a committee planning events for the 150th anniversary of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in the year 2000 was looking for someone to put together a book portraying the history of the 228 existing parishes of the archdiocese. Interested in the proposal, I met with the group in early December, and began work on the project — underwritten in part by a course release from my teaching load granted by the university — in February 1999.
The plan for the book was to provide a one-page historical summary for each parish, with photos, both current and historic, and a "Quick Facts" section listing various vital statistics (church seating, number of parish households, etc.). Doug Ohman of New Hope, Minn., a photographer whose specialty is church architecture and other religious subjects, coordinated the photography.
The obvious starting point for the project was the "Parish Chronicles" section at the back of James Michael Reardon’s The Catholic Church in the Diocese of Saint Paul, published in 1952. This work covered the early history of parishes in existence at that time. To bring these histories up to the present, and to add the history of new parishes founded since 1952, all parishes were surveyed during the spring, summer and fall of 1999.
As the draft of each parish history was completed, it was sent to the parish for reaction and comment. Revised drafts were forwarded to Ohman for the addition of photos, including his own of the current churches, those sent in by the parishes themselves, and others selected from the Archdiocesan Archives and the archives of the catholic Spirit, the weekly archdiocesan newspaper. Page layouts incorporating photos and text were done by the staff of the Catholic Spirit.
The project was completed in early July 2000, and the book was available in time for the 150th anniversary Mass held at the State Fairgrounds on July 23.
Early in the planning process the decision was made to place the parishes in the book chronologically by the dates of their founding. Organized in this manner, Gather Us In offers a panoramic view of the development of the archdiocese. Proceeding decade by decade, one finds, for example, the early rural character of the archdiocese well-evidenced by the fact that over the course of its first 30 years (1850-1880), only nine of the 79 parishes founded were in the Twin Cities area. Parishes were founded during this period throughout the full geographic sweep of the archdiocese, from Faribault and Pine Island in the south, to Rush City in the north, to Norwood-Young America and Waverly in the west.
During the next decade of development, however, rapid urban growth occurred, with 18 of the 28 parishes founded during the 1880s located in St. Paul and Minneapolis. Among the well-known urban parishes founded during this period were Sacred Heart (1881), St. Matthew (1886), St. Agnes (1887), St. Luke (1888) and St. Mark (1889) in St. Paul, and St. Stephen (1885), Holy Cross (1886), St. Lawrence (1887) and Ascension (1890) in Minneapolis.
Rural development returned during the 1890-1909 period, but urban growth picked up again from 1910 to 1920. Finally, beginning in the 1920s, the growth of suburban parishes began in areas such as Hopkins, Columbia Heights and St. Louis Park. This process reached its first peak in the years immediately following World War II, then accelerated again in more recent years with the founding of such giant new suburban parishes as Epiphany in Coon Rapids (1964), St. John Neumann in Eagan (1977), Pax Christi in Eden Prairie (1981) and the new St. Ambrose in Woodbury (1998).
Along with these rural-urban-suburban growth patterns, ethnic background and place of national origin also played a significant part in the development of the parishes of the archdiocese. This can be seen in the rural parishes founded in the earliest days to serve French, Irish or other ethnic communities, and in the "national" parishes — e.g., Irish, Ger-man, Polish or Czech — of the early urban experience. Parishes were also formed to serve African-American and Spanish-speaking communities, such as St. Peter Claver in St. Paul (1888) and St. Leonard of Port Maurice in Minneapolis (1940) and Our Lady of Guadalupe in St. Paul (1931). The importance of ethnic background has continued in recent years with the founding or restructuring of parishes to serve Korean, Hmong, Vietnamese and other ethnic constituencies.
As one might imagine, many interesting facts surfaced in connection with particular parishes. One interesting theme focuses on the earliest meeting places of newly formed parishes. The first church building utilized by St. Michael parish in Prior Lake, for example, was an abandoned church from nearby Spring Lake which was acquired and moved by a team of horses across the frozen lake in the wintertime to its new location.
Members of Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in St. Paul met for a period after its founding in a former pool hall next to a bar, and St. Joseph parish in West St. Paul used a former tavern known as "Sloppy Joe’s" as its first church building. The original meeting places of several parishes founded in the period immediately following World War II were constructed of Quonset huts, and parishioners at St. Gregory the Great parish in St. Paul, founded in 1951, used a large tent as their first place of worship.
Among other interesting facts was the naming of Ascension parish in Norwood/Young America in 1880, done to resolve a dispute between its Irish parishioners, who wanted to retain its original name of St. Patrick, and its German parishioners, who wanted the name changed to St. Joseph.
Another parish, St. Olaf in downtown Minneapolis, may hold a record of sorts for hosting famous celebrities, including John and Robert Kennedy, Maria Von Trapp, Flannery O’Connor, Jimmy Durante, Bishop Fulton Sheen and Mother Teresa.
In addition to the histories of the individual parishes, Gather Us In contains a center section including 21 color plates of stained glass windows from churches throughout the archdiocese photographed by Ohman. These range from highly traditional treatments such as those found in St. Agnes in St. Paul to contemporary designs such as those of St. Raphael in Crystal.
A sampling of testimonials drawn from a cross-section of individuals — led by retired Archbishop John R. Roach — are intermingled with the color plates.
Overall, my work in the creation of Gather Us In was a rich and rewarding experience, and one which has given me a new appreciation of the forces of historical growth, the tremendous architectural beauty and the high level of human sacrifice and commitment which both underlie and reflect the development of this great institution — the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.
About the author: Dr. Scott Wright, chair of the History Department, has been at St. Thomas since 1968. He is the author of several books in addition to Gather Us In, including Japan Encountered: A Brief (and Highly Selective) Survey of Famous Westerners in the Land of the Rising Sun (1996). He is also a permanent deacon, serving at the Church of St. Mark in St. Paul.
Wright and his wife, Betty, were married in the old St. Matthew's Church in St. Paul in 1967.
Gather Us In is for sale at the St. Thomas Bookstore and at St. Patrick’s Guild, St. Paul. To order by mail, call the archdiocesan Communications Department at (651) 291-4411