Assumption Parish
Emmetsburg, Palo Alto, Iowa
History Published on the 100th Anniversary of Assumption Church
August 19, 1984

Assumption Parish
     Assumption Parish takes its origin from a little frame church built on land donated by Martin Coonan in what was then known as the Irish Colony on the banks of the West Des Moines River a short distance northwest of the present town of Emmetsburg. But even earlier than that, the church, the roots of Assumption parish, go back to masses said in homes by priests who traveled here from Corpus Christi Parish in Fort Dodge. In 1857 before the sturdy Irish immigrants who had arrived in 1856 had been visited by any
priest, they had entered a land claim in the name of Bishop John Hennessy of Dubuque and had begun collecting materials for a church.
     There are conflicting accounts of when the first Mass was said in Palo Alto County, but Rt. Rev. Msgr. E.L. McEvoy, an Emmetsburg native and later pastor of Corpus Christi, studied the early days records of that parish and found notation that Father Aylward traveled from Fort Dodge to the Irish Colony, where he baptized Ellen Downey and James Mahan on October 24, 1857.
Msgr. McEvoy concluded there was a "reasonable certainty" that on this occasion Mass was said for the first time in Palo Alto County, probably at the James Hickey home since Hickey family tradition says the first Mass in the County was said there.
     Later, Father Marsh came by horse or ox team from Fort Dodge three or four times a year. He often stayed with the James Hickey family. Messages would be sent to other nearby families to gather the following day at the Martin Laughlins for Mass and confessions.
     The first little log church was started in 1859 on what was later to become the Ormsby residence in the present Emmetsburg townsite, but this log building burned down in a prairie fire before the structure was completed. Twelve years passed before another church was built, this time at the site of the so-called Irish Colony.
     Under the direction of Father Thomas Lenihan, this second church was erected in 1871 on land donated by Martin Coonan. William Shea was in charge of the construction. When Bishop Hennessy appointed Father John Smith its pastor, this little church was only partially constructed but was debt free. There was even a little money in the treasury.
     Father Smith arrived in December, 1871, and in 1872 a rectory was built for him. At that time there were only thirty-nine Catholic families in Palo Alto county, but Father Smith's parish was much larger than that county, including all of northwest Iowa from the Hancock County line west to the Iowa border, all counties north of Humboldt, Pocahontas, Buena Vista and Plymouth
Counties, as well as southwestern Minnesota and eastern South Dakota. In fact, Father Smith and only two other priests were assigned all of what is now the entire Sioux City Diocese. (By way of contrast, in 1958 there were 175 priests assigned to the same territory.)
     In 1874 and 1875 the town literally moved to the present location of Emmetsburg. At first the little church remained at the old site, but it became too small so that the congregation overflowed the churchyard. (The steeple of the little church was for many years on the old Blaire-Gowrie Farm north of Emmetsburg. The late John Kelly discovered that the steeple was about to be destroyed, he insisted that it be placed on view in the Palo Alto County museum, where it remains today.) The decision was made to build a new and larger church in the new town. Father Smith persuaded General John B. Lawler of Prairie du Chien Wisconsin, to donate without cost to the congregation, the four square blocks on which the Assumption Church now stands.
     The March 1880 Palo Alto County Pilot reported: "Plans have been received for the new Catholic building (which) will be 110 feet long and fifty feet wide, with a tower built from the ground on the northeast corner. A large amount of rock is already on the ground for the foundation. " The cornerstone was laid in 1884, and the beautiful and sturdy structure completed at a cost of $35,000. Those pioneers built to last as the walls were constructed eight bricks thick.
     The bricks were made right on the grounds by the parishioners, who also used their own horses and wagons to move the heavier items in the construction. Various families donated the cost of the stained glass windows, and the names still appear on those windows.
     The interior, also typical of the period of construction, was designed in keeping with the exterior. Heavy beams helped to support the roof. Wainscoting was applied to the lower portion of the walls. A scroll-type design in relief around the arch of the sanctuary helped to call attention to the focal point of the church, the main altar.
     The beautiful and ornate altars are obviously handcarved. The Very Rev. W. F. Mason, a long-time pastor of Assumption Parish, years later wrote, "I still do not know where the (main) altar came from, but Dan Burns spoke of it as being at the World's Fair in Chicago about 1895-96. He was an old-timer here, and I visited with him often."
     In March, 1885, the Emmetsburg Democrat reported: "Rev. J.J. Smith went to Spencer last Thursday where he procured the necessary amount of brick to complete the tower of the church." When finished, the edifice was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin in honor of her Assumption.
     In that era, confession was usually twice-a-year practice, especially for the rural parishioners. Since confessions were heard only on Saturdays, it required a major effort and sacrifice for the pioneers, even after the parish had become smaller, to make an opportunity to go to confession during Lent and Advent. Many of the elderly, the sick, and others were physically unable to make the arduous trip to town and back on two consecutive days, so it was customary for them, if possible, to go in Saturday and stay overnight or longer for the additional purpose of a visit with town dwelling relatives or friend before returning to their rural homes.
     The parishioners were not alone in the hardships involved in the long trips to Mass. The horses had difficulties too. When Fr. Smith learned that some of the drivers whipped their horses to make them go faster in order to be on time for Mass, he became quite indignant. In his next sermon he berated this practice and lectured the people about sparing the horses by starting on time.
     Throughout the years, progress continued to be made in improving Assumption Church property. In May, 1888, an article in the Emmetsburg Democrat stated: "Rev. Father Smith contemplates moving his fine residence onto the church property lot sometime during the next few weeks. With a splendid brick church, a fine residence, and a good convent building, the Catholic Church grounds of the city will, in appearance and value, be equal, if not superior to any in Northwest Iowa."
     In 1889 a frame school building and convent combined was erected north of the church and named St. Mary's Academy. It opened in September with 120 pupils in grade and high schools. A few students stayed in the building as boarders. Mrs. Mildred (Ferguson) Lorig says her mother, Catherine Hickey, and the late Mrs. Mary Mulry's sister, Lizzie Gibbs, were among these. Traditional academic subjects, including Latin (taken by all the boys and girls who attended) and Christian values were also stressed.
     The school was staffed by Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary who wore the traditional black wool habit with a long very full skirt, very large heavy rosary, a wimple, gimp and stiff bonnet. As a result of their example through the years many local young ladies joined the same order or other orders of sisters.
     During his forty-plus years as the first pastor of the early day Assumption Parish, Father John Smith influenced hundreds of lives and accomplished many things. He died January 25, 1912, and was buried in St. John's Cemetery less than two miles from the church he had built. The tall marble cross which resembles the ancient crosses of his native Ireland, marks his grave and towers over the surrounding monuments just as he stood out in the community during his lifetime.
     For a few months Father Smith's assistant, Rev. C.P. Conway, carried on the parish work. Then in May, 1912, Bishop John Hennessy appointed Rev. Patrick Farrelly pastor of the Assumption Parish. Father Farrelly had been born in Ireland, but had completed his education in Montreal and Cape Girardeau, Missouri, before being ordained in Dubuque, Iowa.
     Soon after arriving in Emmetsburg, Father Farrelly had work started on the sturdy brick rectory which has been remodeled and is in use today. In 1920 he also commissioned the brick convent for the sisters. The building stood on the southeast corner of the Assumption Church property until being torn down when that portion of the grounds was sold in 1984. He was succeeded by Very Rev. Joseph Murtagh, who had also been born in Ireland and had been ordained in 1889. Father Murtagh served Assumption Parish from 1924 until 1931, when he became of ill health he asked the Bishop to relieve him of his duties.
     The next pastor of Assumption Parish was the Very Rev. Joseph T. Finnegan, serving from early 1932 until May 1936. He was replaced by the Rev. E.A. Dunn until his sudden death in November, 1937.
     The Rev. William F. Mason followed as pastor effective on January 3, 1938. Born in 1895 and ordained in 1922, he was both a zealous priest and a powerful speaker. He proved to be very capable administrator who managed to pay off the sizable parish debt, while also maintaining the existing building and starting a fund to build a new high school. Such management was quite and accomplishment in an era when the people of the parish were struggling to recover from the drought and depression of the years of the 1930's, but the parishioners cooperated just as the pioneer families had done in the earlier years.
     On January 10, 1952, a contract was set for Emmetsburg Catholic High School which was to be funded and operated as a separate unit from the two local parishes on the Northeast corner of the Assumption Church property. Father Elmer Thom of Sacred Heart Parish in Ruthven was appointed superintendent of the high school.  The completed building was dedicated by the Most Rev. Bishop Joseph Mueller on November 23, 1952. The front doors of the school were painted red until indebtedness had been paid off; they were then painted green.
     In recognition of many years of faithful service, on February 28, 1953, Pope Pius XII named Father Mason a Domestic Prelate with the title of Monsignor. Early in 1953 Assumption Parish let a contract for building St. Mary's Grade School between the rectory and the convent. On April 21, 1954, the Most. Rev. J.M. Mueller dedicated the new school.
     In 1957 the two Emmetsburg parishes again combined their efforts to Corrigan Hall, named after Miss Florence Corrigan who had bequeathed over $50,000 for that purpose. Erected to the north of Assumption Church, Corrigan has served as a gymnasium, auditorium, and lunchroom, primarily for the Catholic Schools, but also for community activities. The completion of this building freed the quonset that had served for some years as a gym for use as Assumption Parish Center.
     Through the years, the sincere faith of the families of the Parish, combined in many cases with a background of education in the Catholic schools, led to many religious vocations, sisters, as well as priests, but a shortage of sisters to teach in school and rapidly increasing the cost of operation led to the closing of Emmetsburg Catholic High School in May 1968 and to the earlier consolidation of St. Mary's and St. Ellen's grade schools into the St. Mary's building in 1967. In the fall of 1968, in order to make more room for all levels, the upper grades were moved into what had been the high school.
     Having completed thirty-two years in Assumption Parish, Msgr. Mason, because of his age and impaired health, submitted his resignation to Most. Rev. J.M. Mueller and was given the assignment of chaplain of Holy Family Hospital in Estherville. Msgr. Mason later retired to the Marian Home in Fort Dodge until his death on January 24, 1981, when his body was returned to Assumption Church for his funeral, followed by his burial in St. John's Cemetery.
     After Msgr. Mason's retirement, the Rev. Elmer Thom became pastor in June, 1970, and served in that capacity until the summer of 1979 when he was replaced by co-pastors Rev. Donald Ries and Re. Charles Bormann who were to minister to both Assumption and St. Thomas Parishes. In 1981 Father Bormann was given permission to go to Phoenix, Arizona, to work in the jail ministry and state hospitals. He was to work with convicts, drug addicts, and others in need of counseling. He was replaced as co-pastor by the Rev. Richard Sitzmann in 1982 who continues to serve with Father Ries.
     It would be difficult to compare the original little frame church built in the old Irish Colony to the large, sturdy, Assumption Church marking its one hundredth anniversary in 1984. The beautiful old church stands as a symbol of the strength and endurance of the hardy pioneers who worked and sacrificed to erect and edifice that would be truly a tribute to God, who was so important in their lives. Any community is richer for having a church with so much religious and historical significance, and the people of the Emmetsburg area appreciate the important role that the Assumption Church has played throughout the past century.