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