The Globe, Jubilee Edition
Thursday, April 28, 1977


Mother of the Churches of Northwest Iowa

Emmetsburg - Assumption parish might well lay claim to the title "Mother of the Churches of Northwest Iowa" for when Father John J. Smith became the first pastor in 1871, his parish extended from Garner on the east to the Dakota line on the west, and was bounded on the north by the Minnesota border.

However, the beginnings of the parish go back to the very early years of the Irish Colony, that little band of sturdy pioneers who in 1856 settled on the West Fork of the Des Moines River, just northwest of the present site of Emmetsburg. Their devotion to the Faith is attested by the fact that in 1857, before they had been visited by a priest, they entered a land claim in the name of the bishop of Dubuque, and began collecting materials to erect a church.

Unfortunately, when the log walls were partly raised, a prairie fire swept over the area and destroyed the little building and the collected materials.

There is some question as to when the first Mass was celebrated in the settlement. Local historians have recorded that Father Marsh, a zealous pioneer priest from Fort Dodge, offered the Holy Sacrifice in the home of Martin Laughlin in 1859.


New Evidence

Recently discovered evidence, however, in the baptismal records of Corpus Christi Church in Fort Dodge, indicates that Father Aylward baptized several infants in the Irish Colony in early October of 1857. Since it is unlikely that he would make the long trip without offering Mass for the settlers, the earliest celebration of the Mass probably took place at that time.

It has been recorded that Father Marsh came by horse or ox team to the settlement three or four times a year. He frequently stayed at the James Hickey home and from there the word would go out to the settlers, and all would gather at the Martin Laughlin home the next day for confessions and for the celebration of the Mass.

A second and more successful attempt to build a church was made in 1870, under the leadership of Father T.M.Lenihan of Fort Dodge. A plot of land was donated by Martin Coonan and a substantial little frame church was erected.

It is a tribute to this little group that when Father Smith arrived in December,1871, the church was completely paid for and there was a small sum in the treasury.


Father Smith begins 41-year pastorate

Father Smith, the first resident pastor, was a remarkable man. He was born in Ireland in 1836, and as a young man he taught in his native land. Then heeding the call to serve God in the priesthood, he entered All Hallows College in Dublin, where he was ordained in 1870. Immediately after his ordination he came to Dubuque to begin his priestly labors under Bishop John Hennessy. When he was appointed to the pastorate in Emmetsburg, he traveled by rail to Algona and finished the journey by team, since the railroad did not reach Emmetsburg until several years later.

Today it is almost impossible for us to imagine the difficulties that faced this young priest as he traveled about his vast parish, offering Mass in homes or in public buildings, visiting the sick, baptizing the children, instructing and encouraging his flock. Sick calls 40 or 50 miles away were not uncommon, and many incidents have been recorded of his fortitude and devotion in traveling across the almost trackless prairie, fording unbridged streams, in every kind of weather, and at any hour of the day or night to bring the Last Sacraments to a dying parishioner.

In 1874, the little town of Emmetsburg literally picked itself up and moved to a new location to be nearer to the railroad. For a time the little frame church continued in its original location, but it was soon too small and the congregation overflowed into the churchyard. Father Smith felt that the time had come to build a more suitable house of worship in the new town.


Present church erected, 1884


General John B. Lawler, of Prairie du Chien, Wis., donated four square blocks of land in the south part of town for this purpose, and in 1884, the cornerstone of the present beautiful brick church was laid. It was dedicated to the Blessed Mother in honor of her Assumption. Father Smith was not only a dedicated pastor but also an educator who was well aware of the importance of a sound Christian education and five years after the completion of the church, St. Mary's Academy was begun.

It was opened in September, 1889, with 120 pupils in the grade and high school.

During the remainder of his life, Father Smith was busy with his pastoral cares and the direction of the school. In January, 1912, God called him to his eternal rest, after nearly 41 years of labor in the vineyard of the Master.

Father Farrelly arrives

After the death of Father Smith, Father Patrick F. Farrelly was appointed pastor. He had a profound scholarly intellect, and was an able writer and speaker. Shortly after his arrival he arranged for the building of the present rectory, and in 1920, under his leadership, the present sisters' convent was erected. In 1921, on the occasion of his Golden Jubilee, he was appointed Domestic Prelate by Pope Benedict XV, with the title of Monsignor. Three years later, in September, 1924, he passed to his reward.

The next pastor, Father Joseph G. Murtagh, like his predecessors, had been born in Ireland and had completed his classical studies there. He possessed a brilliant mind and tremendous zeal but throughout his life he suffered from delicate health and after seven years in Emmetsburg he asked the bishop to relieve him of his pastoral duties. He was appointed chaplain of Briar Cliff College where he remained until his death in 1935.

When Father Murtagh left Emmetsburg in January, 1932, he was succeeded by Father Joseph T. Finnegan. He served until May, 1936, and was followed by Father Edward A. Dunn who was pastor until his sudden death in November, 1937.

On January 3, 1938, Father William F. Mason became pastor. He  was not only a zealous pastor and a powerful speaker, but also an extremely able administrator. Under his leadership the indebtedness of the parish was paid off and a fund was started for a new high school.

High school dedicated

In 1952, the Emmetsburg Catholic high school was dedicated. It was funded and operated as a separate unit by both parishes in Emmetsburg. Father Elmer D. Thom, at that time pastor of Sacred Heart church in Ruthven, was appointed superintendent.

In the spring of 1953, a contract was let by Assumption parish for the erection of a new St. Mary's grade school. It was dedicated in May, 1954.

In 1957 Corrigan Hall, a combined auditorium-gymnasium and lunch room, was built by both parishes. It was named Corrigan Hall in memory of Miss Florence Corrigan, whose will contributed over $50,000 toward its erection.

The Emmetsburg Catholic high school provided excellent educational opportunities for the students. It would seem that the dream of Father Smith, who rejoiced at the opening of St. Mary's Academy in 1889, was being fulfilled. But in 1968, due to rapidly rising costs and to the shortage of sisters, it was regretfully decided to close the high school. The modern buildings and equipment were not wasted, however, for the two buildings, grade and high school, now house the St. Mary's grade school, which is operated by and serves the needs of both the parishes in Emmetsburg.


Msgr. Mason completes 32-year pastorate

In 1970, Msgr. Mason, due to advancing years and impaired health, submitted his resignation to the bishop. He was appointed chaplain of Holy Family Hospital in Estherville. In the 32 years of his pastorate, he had left an indelible mark on the parish and the community. He is now a resident of the Marian Home in Fort Dodge.

In June, 1970, Father Elmer Thom came to Emmetsburg as pastor of Assumption parish. He was no stranger to the people who emembered him for his wise and able management of the Catholic high school during its early years. He has continued to carry on the traditions of the pastors who have served Assumption parish so capably and so unselfishly during its history of well over a century.

The parish now numbers 992 souls in 255 households.