Church of St. John of St. Paul
The First 50 Years: 1886 - 1936

St. John's Church in 1936
St. John's Golden Jubilee - 1886 - 1936  St. Paul, Minn

In the early months of 1886, the Right Rev. John Ireland, bishop of St. Paul gave proof of the zeal and devotion which had brought him to that high office in 1884, by calling in Rev. Louis Cornelis, pastor at Mendota, to look into the possibilities of organizing an English-speaking Catholic parish on Dayton’s Bluff. The Sacred Heart Church had been founded in 1882 to care for the German speaking residents of the district, but ever growing numbers of English speaking people coming into the neighborhood seemed to make the establishment of a separate parish for them a logical step in the growth of the diocese. 

Father Cornelis reported to the bishop that the prospects were not encouraging, for most of the people on the Bluff were newcomers, poor, and trying to build homes of their own, but that he was, nevertheless, willing to attempt the task. Parish boundaries were at once drawn up, cutting off the district at Payne avenue on the one hand, and Maria avenue on the other, according to an anonymous contribution to the Northwestern Chronicle for November 11, 1886. 

Corporation Organized

Undaunted by the magnitude of the task before him, the new pastor at once canvassed the Bluff for funds, and collected over $1,100 of which $200 was contributed by the people of the new parish. 

The Corporation of the Church of St. John was organized under the laws of the State of Minnesota on August 4, 1886, and its first meeting held on August 29 of the same year, at the Cathedral residence on West Sixth street, in the heart of what is now downtown St. Paul. The Right Reverend Bishop Ireland, as president of the corporation, Rev. Louis Cornelis as vice-president, and Very Rev. Augustine Ravoux, Vicar General, declared the election of E. D. Macdonald as secretary and Charles Dawson as treasurer of the corporation. One of the first acts of the corporation was the repayment to the bishop of the sum of $4,000.00, which had been advanced by him to secure as church property nine lots in Snow and Miller’s Addition to the City of St. Paul, including lots 16 to 24. 

On August 3, 1886, a lawn festival was held on the grounds at Maria Avenue and Conway Street. According to contemporary accounts, the grounds illuminated by hundreds of Chinese lanterns, were a colorful sight. What is more pertinent to parish history, however, large crowds attended, a substantial amount was realized, and the contract for the building of the church on Frances (now Fifth) Street, between Forest and Cypress, was let early in September, 1886. 

Funds Raised 

Next step in the raising of funds, always a problem confronting a new parish in a sparsely settled district, was a fair held at Knauft’s Hall, 350 East Seventh Street. In addition to the features common to such enterprises were some which recall the names of those who in their own day were mighty men. The nomination for the most popular candidate for mayor went to W. R. Merriam, later governor of Minnesota, with John Dowlan running a close second; that for the most popular alderman went to Mr. Kain; that for the most popular fire department official to Captain Martin. These were not empty honors, for Mr. Merriam received an easy chair, and Alderman Kain, a gold watch chain. Shades of other days, other manners, are recalled by the mention of the prize given to the most popular mechanic, a gold-headed cane. Undoubtedly a favorite in the community was J. E. McGuire who attained the distinction of being named most popular young man by a vote larger than that cast for both his rivals. No uncertain indication of the love of the parishioners for their pastor is the fact that one of the articles raffled off was a crayon portrait of Father Cornelis. 

Other things lay before the congregation besides the festivities just mentioned. No record can show all the self-sacrifice, all the devotion, all the unstinting labor which preceded the dedication of the twelfth Catholic church in St. Paul on December 19, 1886. 

Only a few architectural features revealed the identity of the plain frame building which was to be St. John’s for over a third of a century, but the people were proud of the stained glass windows, the black walnut finish of the pews, the small, cross-crowned belfry, the white altar, the spacious octagonal sanctuary, the sacristy which could be used as a winter chapel, and other features incorporated by the architect, H. G. Terherne. 

The seating capacity of 450 was too small to admit the whole of the throng which had gathered on the grounds an hour before the time set for the services. Because of the absence of Bishop Ireland, who was in Europe at the time, the Right Reverend Thomas L. Grace, titular bishop of Mennith, officiated at the ceremonies. Bishop Grace was the second bishop of the diocese of St. Paul, and was made Titular Bishop of Mennith when he retired in 1884, after having served the diocese since 1859.

Solemn Dedication

Solemn high mass was celebrated by the pastor, Father Cornelis, who was assisted by Rev. J. J. Keane, of St. Thomas Seminary (later Archbishop of Dubuque), as deacon, and Rev. Martin Mahoney of the House of Good Shepherd, as sub-deacon. The pastor of the Church of the Sacred Heart, Rev. Charles Koeberl, acted as master of ceremonies. Present in the sanctuary were the venerable Vicar General, Very Rev. Augustine Ravoux, and Rev. Edward Morris, pastor of St. Mary’s. 

Standing on the steps of the altar Father Keane preached on the ninth verse of the twenty-third psalm: "Lift up your gates, O ye princes, and be ye lifted up, O eternal gates; and the King of Glory shall enter in," contrasting the material grandeur of the temple of Solomon with the spiritual grandeur of a church which is the House of God. 

The spiritual activity of the parish is reflected in the fact that the first mission, held by the Paulist Fathers Deshon, Doyle, and Nevans, of New York City, beginning May 5, 1887, was so well attended that the church could not accommodate the crowds. 

Father Cornelis had so spent himself in the work of organizing the parish that he was forced, because of ill health, to resign, and was succeeded by Rev. James Fleming of Albert Lea in June 1887. In September of the following year Father Cornelis died at Dearborn, Michigan. His remains, however, were brought to St. Paul, and now repose in the priests’ lot at Calvary cemetery. 

The parish made rapid progress during the seven years Father Fleming was pastor. In October 1887, $1,600 was borrowed for the purpose of erecting a pastoral residence, a modest frame structure flanking the church. The debt thus incurred was paid off rapidly, the more so because, as contemporary accounts tersely state, "contributions were received from unexpected sources."

Prominent among the organizations which arose under the guiding hand of Father Fleming was the Total Abstinence Society, whose first rally was held in November 1887. Not a few of the newspaper items which have come down to us refer to the activities of this group—they packed the church to hear a lecture delivered by Father Keane of St. Thomas Seminary, they marked each of their anniversaries by elaborate programs, and carried on active work over a long period of years.

First Communion

Pentecost Day, May 25, 1888, saw the celebration of the first solemn communion service in the annals of the parish. Forty boys and girls of the parish solemnly received the Sacrament on that day and were the guests of the pastor in the newly completed residence. 

The summer of 1888 must have been very busy. Father Fleming announced his intention of building a new school as soon as plans and specifications could be drawn up; a new high altar, in the Roman style, was ordered from J. D. Riordan; three thousand dollars were realized from a fair held at Lucker’s Hall.

Parish records of the time speak of the flourishing financial condition of St. John’s, a condition easy to understand in the light of the social affairs for the benefit of the church which followed one another in close succession. In September 1889, Father Fleming announced that plans for the school had been presented to him by J. C. McCarthy. The contractor agreed to have the building, an eight room brick and terra cotta structure, commanding the highest part of the bluff on Frances Street near Forest, completed in November. The board of directors arranged to borrow twelve thousand dollars to finance the building, which was necessary because of the increase of the student population on the Bluff.

On January 15, 1890, the formal dedication of the school took place. According to a notice in the Northwestern Chronicle for January 10, 1890; "The Rosary Society of the parish will have charge of an oyster supper which is to mark the dedication. The Cable runs within two blocks of the school." At first only two rooms were used for school purposes, the entire second floor being laid out as a hall for parish functions.

School Opened

Under the direction of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart, an order of teaching nuns who dressed as lay women, the school received its first pupils in February 1890, and graduated its first class on June of the same year. In 1892 the Sisters of St. Joseph under the direction of Sister Esperance, took charge of the school, have continued in charge up to the present time.

Four years after the erection of the school Father Fleming paid the toll which nature exacts of those who are self-sacrificing in the pursuit of their duties ... he was forced by ill health to resign from his pastorate. After an illness of two years he recovered sufficiently to assume the pastorate of Shieldsville, Minnesota, where he remained until his death in February 1909.

The third pastor of St. John’s, Rev. Thomas F. Gleeson, came from Northfield to the post which he was to hold for thirty-five years. It was at this time, in September 1894, that the first assistant, Rev. Edward T. Lee, came to St. John’s. From that time on, the congregation continued to grow in size, and the services of two priests were required at all times. 

Father Gleeson found in his new charge a church, a rectory and a new school, but along with these, a heavy indebtedness. The dry bones of the minutes of the corporation meetings take on living flesh when we consider the heroic way in which the little parish of some 300 families held its own during a series of trying years, and emerged, before the death of Father Gleeson in 1929, with a new church and a new rectory. Records of borrowings and mortgages, each a heavy burden in itself, pale into insignificance when we read how, bit by bit, the debts were reduced, and capital raised to carry on new endeavors. 

Happy, says the poet, the ‘people whose annals are short. Happy also is the parish whose growth is so rapid that it can early settle down to that simple pattern of living, which, in retrospect, we call routine, so well founded that there was little to call it to the attention of the world until 1913, when Father Gleeson celebrated his silver jubilee. 

On June 26 of that year, Right Rev. John J. Lawler auxiliary bishop of the diocese, and seventy-five priests gathered in the church for the solemn high mass, celebrated by the jubiliarian. Following the services in the church a banquet was served to the clergy in the school hall.

Reception for Pastor

Mayor H. P. Keller, representing the City of St. Paul; Daniel Lawler, the Knights of Columbus; T. J. Doyle, the Ancient Order of Hibernians; J. A. Seeger, the Dayton’s Bluff Commercial Club, were the principal speakers at a celebration held on June 30 in the Odd Fellows’ Hall, at Reaney and Forest streets, in recognition of the work done by Father Gleeson for the church and community. At this gathering "Father Tom," as he was affectionately called, was presented with a purse by the members of the congregation in a spirit of gratitude for the work he had done in his nineteen years among them. 

Meanwhile the city of St. Paul had been growing, and St. John’s found that it could not care for all the families which had been pushing their way out towards the city limits. On January 31, 1917, a letter from Archbishop Ireland to Father Gleeson set the boundaries between St. John’s and the newly established Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Hazel Park. As a matter of record the lines then determined are herewith included: "Taken as point of departure the junction of Phalen and Seventh streets. From the point of departure northward: Follow Phalen street to the limits of the city and furthermore, outside those limits, to points half way distant from above named parishes to other parishes now established within those limits. From point of departure southward and south. eastward. Eastward along Seventh street to Etna street, thence southward along Etna street to Beech street, thence eastward along Beech Street to Hazelwood street, thence southward along Hazelwood street to Hudson Road, thence along Hudson Road eastward to points equally distant between above named parishes and other parishes now established outside the limits of the city." 

New Church

This limitation in territory seemed to increase, rather than to decrease, the enthusiasm of pastor and parishioners, and the first meeting to discuss the erection of a new church took place in 1919. The entire sum of $125,000 necessary was pledged within the parish itself, and the foundation laid in August, 1921. Work on the super structure was started in April 1922. W. T. Harris, one of the parishioners, was the architect; the builders were N. P. Fransen and Co. 

On Easter Sunday, March 25, 1923, the parishioners attended their first solemn service in the new brick and Bedford stone building in modern Gothic style. Almost double the size of the old church, seating 710 people, 115 feet long and 88 feet across the transept, the new church might have well been the cause of pardonable pride on the part of Father Gleeson. 

The new church was, however, only one step in the development of the parish property. On May 18, 1927, or just about four years after the solemn opening of the church, the board of directors made arrangements for a loan of $70,000, which was to be used for the erection of a new parish house and for other corporation business. 

A twenty-one room brick structure was completed in September of 1927, at a cost of $19,500, and on December 19, of the same year the old house was sold by the trustees for the sum of $3,000. 

Father Gleeson lived for only two years in his new home, and died after a short illness on March 3, 1929. As his successor, Rev. James E. Doyle, pointed out in his first year book, Father Gleeson "had St. John’s in mind and heart even to the last. The bulk of his modest estate will come to the parish he served so long and so faithfully." 

Fourth Pastor

The fourth pastor of St. John’s came to the church from St. Cecilia’s in Midway. During his twelve years as pastor there three additional lots and a rectory were acquired, and a parochial school built. Before that Father Doyle had been pastor of the church at Green Isle, Minnesota. His first appointment after his ordination in 1904 was to St. Thomas College, where he combined the duties of instructor in English and Latin and prefect of discipline, with those of director of athletics and coach of the baseball and basketball teams. During his stay at the college he undertook the collection of funds for the erection of the present athletic field, and personally supervised the entire work, which included the reclaiming of the swamp land which had been selected as the best available site.

According to the Northwestern Chronicle an enthusiastic welcome was given Father Doyle at a reception held in his honor on Sunday, May 6. At an entertainment arranged by J. R. Fancy, the incumbent was introduced by Rev. James Moynihan, then professor of English at, and now president of, the College of St. Thomas. Addresses were given by Fathers Thomas Printon, Alphonse Carey, Benjamin Audus, William Finley, Richard Lee, and Monsignor Patrick O’Neil 

Increasing demands of parish work necessitated the appointment of a second assistant, and from this time onwards, three priests have been stationed at St. John’s at all times. As the parish grew in numbers, a new school became necessary to care for the growing student population of the district. Plans were submitted to Father Doyle by the firm of Slifer and Abrahamson, architects, and work was begun in July, 1931. Built with an eye to future expansion, the $135,000 Gothic brick and cut stone building is a worthy companion to the church and parish house. 

No feature for the comfort and convenience of those whom it is intended to serve seems to have been omitted. In the basement, extending practically two stories high, is a regulation size gymnasium, so constructed that it serves as an auditorium as well. Concrete bleachers are built in such a way as to provide storage space for chairs to be used for the auditorium. Space is provided for a regulation size handball court, locker and shower rooms for boys and girls, a lunchroom, and a Boy Scout room. At one end of the gymnasium is a stage, 31 by 44 feet, provided with footlights and other features necessary for the staging of dramatic productions. A dressing room for players is located at one end. The heating plant in the basement heats both church and school.

New School

On the first floor are five classrooms; a kindergarten occupying space equal to two ordinary sized classrooms, with a fireplace and a playroom; an office; a nurse’s room and a book room for the distribution of texts. 

Seven classrooms are located on the second floor, in addition to a library, Sisters’ quarters consisting of a living room and a dining room, a parish dining room and kitchen. Many of the rooms in the building were so designed with respect to light and ventilation that seventeen classrooms would be available if needed. 

To assist in defraying the cost of the building a group of former pupils of St. John’s School organized a "Brick Club" and sent out a letter to all "old grads" of the school, inviting them to "Buy a Brick" in the new structure. The record of those who responded to this appeal together with the original text of the letter is found on another page in this booklet.

On January 31, 1932, the new school was formally opened to the public with an entertainment, Michael F. Kinkhead, county attorney, acting as master of ceremonies. The pastor opened the program with an informal address, which was followed by concert selections by the Cretin High School Military Band, and by a group of soloists. Rev. J. A. Byrnes, archdiocesan superintendent of schools, gave the principal address. Serving of tea by the ladies of the parish added a hospitable touch to the afternoon’s program.

Formal dedication of the building did not take place until April 17, 1932. At that time 500 members of the Holy Name Society formed a guard of honor for Archbishop John Gregory Murray. More than 4000 people attended the ceremonies, after which confirmation was administered to a class of 175 persons.

Dedication Ceremony

The Rev. Francis T. J. Burns of the St. Paul Seminary was archpresbyter during the dedication ceremonies, with the Rev. James A. Byrnes, archdiocesan superintendent of schools and the Rev. Marcus Schludecker O.F.M., pastor of the Church of the Sacred Heart, serving as deacons of honor. The master of ceremonies was the Very Rev. Dr. Francis J. Schaefer, pastor of St. Matthew’s Church. Benediction was given by the Right Reverend Monsignor James C. Byrne, Vicar General, who was assisted by the Rev. Andrew Stojar O.M.I., pastor of the church of St. Casmir, and the Rev. Richard Lee, pastor of St. Patrick’s Church. At the conclusion of the ceremonies his Excellency and the assisting ministers were dinner guests of the pastor.

It would have been easy with so fine a parish establishment, school, church, parish house all new, to have succumbed to the temptation to rest upon the achievements of his predecessors, but Father Doyle was filled with that pioneering spirit which seems to have been the inheritance of all the pastors of St. John’s from the first in line, Father Cornelis. Father Doyle began at once to work on the parish societies, reorganizing some, starting new ones. Shortly after his arrival in 1929 he consolidated all the societies for married women in the parish into the Rosary Society and established the Young Ladies Sodality. In the same year he organized a Boy Scout Troop, and an Altar Boys’ Sodality. A Parent-Teachers Association, a Holy Name group, a Dramatic Club, a Literary Club, a Young Men’s Athletic Association and a Young Women’s Athletic Association, show the enthusiasm with which he provided for the various needs and desires of those under his charge.

Stone walls make neither a prison nor a parish. The material achievements of St. John’s, a corporation with property valued at a third of a million dollars, must not be allowed to cast too dark a shadow over the spiritual side of that corporation. To one who has gone through the history of the parish since its founding there seems to have been a more than usually strong light to guide its members. The achievements of the parish in brick and stone have been but the work done by that light, and as the fiftieth year of its existence draws to a close, there seems to be in it "no change or shadow of alteration." We do not live for our own day only; the people of St. John’s have showed themselves fully aware of their debt to their predecessors, and fully aware of the obligations which they owe to those who are to come after them.