First 50 Years: 1886 - 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
which had brought him to that high office in 1884, by calling in Rev.
Cornelis, pastor at Mendota, to look into the possibilities of
English-speaking Catholic parish on Dayton’s Bluff. The Sacred Heart
been founded in 1882 to care for the German speaking residents of the
but ever growing numbers of English speaking people coming into the
neighborhood seemed to make the establishment of a separate parish for
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
Bluff were newcomers, poor, and trying to build homes of their own, but
was, nevertheless, willing to attempt the task. Parish boundaries were
drawn up, cutting off the district at Payne avenue on the one hand, and
avenue on the other, according to an anonymous contribution to the
Chronicle for November 11, 1886.
Undaunted by the magnitude of the
task before him, the new pastor at once canvassed the Bluff for funds,
collected over $1,100 of which $200 was contributed by the people of
The Corporation of the Church of St.
John was organized under the laws of the State of Minnesota on August
and its first meeting held on August 29 of the same year, at the
residence on West Sixth street, in the heart of what is now downtown
The Right Reverend Bishop Ireland, as president of the corporation,
Cornelis as vice-president, and Very Rev. Augustine Ravoux, Vicar
declared the election of E. D. Macdonald as secretary and Charles
treasurer of the corporation. One of the first acts of the corporation
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
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
were a colorful sight. What is more pertinent to parish history,
crowds attended, a substantial amount was realized, and the contract
building of the church on Frances (now Fifth) Street, between Forest
was let early in September, 1886.
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
who in their own day were mighty men. The nomination for the most
candidate for mayor went to W. R. Merriam, later governor of Minnesota,
John Dowlan running a close second; that for the most popular alderman
Mr. Kain; that for the most popular fire department official to Captain
These were not empty honors, for Mr. Merriam received an easy chair,
Alderman Kain, a gold watch chain. Shades of other days, other manners,
recalled by the mention of the prize given to the most popular
gold-headed cane. Undoubtedly a favorite in the community was J. E.
attained the distinction of being named most popular young man by a
than that cast for both his rivals. No uncertain indication of the love
parishioners for their pastor is the fact that one of the articles
was a crayon portrait of Father Cornelis.
Other things lay before the
congregation besides the festivities just mentioned. No record can show
self-sacrifice, all the devotion, all the unstinting labor which
dedication of the twelfth Catholic church in St. Paul on December 19,
Only a few architectural features
revealed the identity of the plain frame building which was to be St.
for over a third of a century, but the people were proud of the stained
windows, the black walnut finish of the pews, the small, cross-crowned
the white altar, the spacious octagonal sanctuary, the sacristy which
used as a winter chapel, and other features incorporated by the
The seating capacity of 450 was too
small to admit the whole of the throng which had gathered on the
hour before the time set for the services. Because of the absence of
Ireland, who was in Europe at the time, the Right Reverend Thomas L.
titular bishop of Mennith, officiated at the ceremonies. Bishop Grace
second bishop of the diocese of St. Paul, and was made Titular Bishop
Mennith when he retired in 1884, after having served the diocese since
Solemn high mass was celebrated by
the pastor, Father Cornelis, who was assisted by Rev. J. J. Keane, of
Thomas Seminary (later Archbishop of Dubuque), as deacon, and Rev.
Mahoney of the House of Good Shepherd, as sub-deacon. The pastor of the
of the Sacred Heart, Rev. Charles Koeberl, acted as master of
Present in the sanctuary were the venerable Vicar General, Very Rev.
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:
up your gates, O ye princes, and be ye lifted up, O eternal gates; and
of Glory shall enter in," contrasting the material grandeur of the
of Solomon with the spiritual grandeur of a church which is the House
The spiritual activity of the parish
is reflected in the fact that the first mission, held by the Paulist
Deshon, Doyle, and Nevans, of New York City, beginning May 5, 1887, was
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
to resign, and was succeeded by Rev. James Fleming of Albert Lea in
In September of the following year Father Cornelis died at Dearborn,
His remains, however, were brought to St. Paul, and now repose in the
lot at Calvary cemetery.
The parish made rapid progress
during the seven years Father Fleming was pastor. In October 1887,
borrowed for the purpose of erecting a pastoral residence, a modest
structure flanking the church. The debt thus incurred was paid off
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
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
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
and carried on active work over a long period of years.
Pentecost Day, May 25, 1888, saw the
celebration of the first solemn communion service in the annals of the
Forty boys and girls of the parish solemnly received the Sacrament on
and were the guests of the pastor in the newly completed
The summer of 1888 must have been
very busy. Father Fleming announced his intention of building a new
soon as plans and specifications could be drawn up; a new high altar,
Roman style, was ordered from J. D. Riordan; three thousand dollars
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
which followed one another in close succession. In September 1889,
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
terra cotta structure, commanding the highest part of the bluff on
Street near Forest, completed in November. The board of directors
arranged to borrow
twelve thousand dollars to finance the building, which was necessary
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
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
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
Under the direction of the Sisters
of the Immaculate Heart, an order of teaching nuns who dressed as lay
the school received its first pupils in February 1890, and graduated
class on June of the same year. In 1892 the Sisters of St. Joseph under
direction of Sister Esperance, took charge of the school, have
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
self-sacrificing in the pursuit of their duties ... he was forced by
to resign from his pastorate. After an illness of two years he
sufficiently to assume the pastorate of Shieldsville, Minnesota, where
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
thirty-five years. It was at this time, in September 1894, that the
assistant, Rev. Edward T. Lee, came to St. John’s. From that time on,
congregation continued to grow in size, and the services of two priests
required at all times.
Father Gleeson found in his new
charge a church, a rectory and a new school, but along with these, a
indebtedness. The dry bones of the minutes of the corporation meetings
living flesh when we consider the heroic way in which the little parish
300 families held its own during a series of trying years, and emerged,
the death of Father Gleeson in 1929, with a new church and a new
Records of borrowings and mortgages, each a heavy burden in itself,
insignificance when we read how, bit by bit, the debts were reduced,
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
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
to the attention of the world until 1913, when Father Gleeson
On June 26 of that year, Right Rev.
John J. Lawler auxiliary bishop of the diocese, and seventy-five
gathered in the church for the solemn high mass, celebrated by the
Following the services in the church a banquet was served to the clergy
Reception for Pastor
Mayor H. P. Keller, representing the
City of St. Paul; Daniel Lawler, the Knights of Columbus; T. J. Doyle,
Ancient Order of Hibernians; J. A. Seeger, the Dayton’s Bluff
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
Father Gleeson for the church and community. At this gathering "Father
Tom," as he was affectionately called, was presented with a purse by
members of the congregation in a spirit of gratitude for the work he
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
which had been pushing their way out towards the city limits. On
1917, a letter from Archbishop Ireland to Father Gleeson set the
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
included: "Taken as point of departure the junction of Phalen and
streets. From the point of departure northward: Follow Phalen street to
limits of the city and furthermore, outside those limits, to points
distant from above named parishes to other parishes now established
those limits. From point of departure southward and south. eastward.
along Seventh street to Etna street, thence southward along Etna street
Beech street, thence eastward along Beech Street to Hazelwood street,
southward along Hazelwood street to Hudson Road, thence along Hudson
eastward to points equally distant between above named parishes and
parishes now established outside the limits of the city."
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
took place in 1919. The entire sum of $125,000 necessary was pledged
parish itself, and the foundation laid in August, 1921. Work on the
structure was started in April 1922. W. T. Harris, one of the
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
Bedford stone building in modern Gothic style. Almost double the size
church, seating 710 people, 115 feet long and 88 feet across the
new church might have well been the cause of pardonable pride on the
The new church was, however, only
one step in the development of the parish property. On May 18, 1927, or
about four years after the solemn opening of the church, the board of
made arrangements for a loan of $70,000, which was to be used for the
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
of the same year the old house was sold by the trustees for the sum of
Father Gleeson lived for only two
years in his new home, and died after a short illness on March 3, 1929.
successor, Rev. James E. Doyle, pointed out in his first year book,
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
The fourth pastor of St. John’s came
to the church from St. Cecilia’s in Midway. During his twelve years as
there three additional lots and a rectory were acquired, and a
built. Before that Father Doyle had been pastor of the church at Green
Minnesota. His first appointment after his ordination in 1904 was to
College, where he combined the duties of instructor in English and
prefect of discipline, with those of director of athletics and coach of
baseball and basketball teams. During his stay at the college he
collection of funds for the erection of the present athletic field, and
personally supervised the entire work, which included the reclaiming of
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
his honor on Sunday, May 6. At an entertainment arranged by J. R.
incumbent was introduced by Rev. James Moynihan, then professor of
and now president of, the College of St. Thomas. Addresses were given
Fathers Thomas Printon, Alphonse Carey, Benjamin Audus, William Finley,
Lee, and Monsignor Patrick O’Neil
Increasing demands of parish work
necessitated the appointment of a second assistant, and from this time
three priests have been stationed at St. John’s at all times. As the
grew in numbers, a new school became necessary to care for the growing
population of the district. Plans were submitted to Father Doyle by the
Slifer and Abrahamson, architects, and work was begun in July, 1931.
an eye to future expansion, the $135,000 Gothic brick and cut stone
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
In the basement, extending practically two stories high, is a
gymnasium, so constructed that it serves as an auditorium as well.
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
court, locker and shower rooms for boys and girls, a lunchroom, and a
room. At one end of the gymnasium is a stage, 31 by 44 feet, provided
footlights and other features necessary for the staging of dramatic
productions. A dressing room for players is located at one end. The
plant in the basement heats both church and 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
book room for the distribution of texts.
Seven classrooms are located on the
second floor, in addition to a library, Sisters’ quarters consisting of
living room and a dining room, a parish dining room and kitchen. Many
rooms in the building were so designed with respect to light and
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
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.
county attorney, acting as master of ceremonies. The pastor opened the
with an informal address, which was followed by concert selections by
Cretin High School Military Band, and by a group of soloists. Rev. J.
Byrnes, archdiocesan superintendent of schools, gave the principal
Serving of tea by the ladies of the parish added a hospitable touch to
Formal dedication of the building
did not take place until April 17, 1932. At that time 500 members of
Name Society formed a guard of honor for Archbishop John Gregory
than 4000 people attended the ceremonies, after which confirmation was
administered to a class of 175 persons.
The Rev. Francis T. J. Burns of the
St. Paul Seminary was archpresbyter during the dedication ceremonies,
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
deacons of honor. The master of ceremonies was the Very Rev. Dr.
Schaefer, pastor of St. Matthew’s Church. Benediction was given by the
Reverend Monsignor James C. Byrne, Vicar General, who was assisted by
Andrew Stojar O.M.I., pastor of the church of St. Casmir, and the Rev.
Lee, pastor of St. Patrick’s Church. At the conclusion of the
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
to the temptation to rest upon the achievements of his predecessors,
Doyle was filled with that pioneering spirit which seems to have been
inheritance of all the pastors of St. John’s from the first in line,
Cornelis. Father Doyle began at once to work on the parish societies,
reorganizing some, starting new ones. Shortly after his arrival in 1929
consolidated all the societies for married women in the parish into the
Society and established the Young Ladies Sodality. In the same year he
organized a Boy Scout Troop, and an Altar Boys’ Sodality. A
Association, a Holy Name group, a Dramatic Club, a Literary Club, a
Athletic Association and a Young Women’s Athletic Association, show the
enthusiasm with which he provided for the various needs and desires of
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
must not be allowed to cast too dark a shadow over the spiritual side
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
The achievements of the parish in brick and stone have been but the
by that light, and as the fiftieth year of its existence draws to a
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
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.