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Encyclopedia Dubuque


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St. Columbkille Catholic Church circa 1910. Photo Courtesy: St. Columbkille Church, Alice Noethe, and Sue Schmitt

ST. COLUMBKILLE CATHOLIC CHURCH. St. Columbkille Parish is named for the Gaelic Irish missionary priest Columba. or Colmcille (521-597 A.D.). The name Columba, or Colm, means "Dove and the Cill means "Church." The full name Colmcille (or Columbkille) given him by his countrymen, means "Dove of the Church." (1)

Irish immigration was of primary interest to Bishop Mathias LORAS. By the 1800s, a large number of Irish had settled in "Little Dublin" on West Hill. The Cathedral, built by Fr. Samuel MAZZUCHELLI in 1835, was slightly over a mile away. Walking up and down the muddy hill, without streets or sidewalks, was a hardship for the for those wishing to attend Mass or school. In 1852 the first parish established to serve Irish immigrants was St. Patrick's. (2) This too posed a difficulty to reach.

In 1879, the four SISTERS OF THE PRESENTATION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY (PBVM) supported by Bishop John HENNESSY were invited back to Dubuque from Key West to open the West Hill School. Since the school was not complete, classes were held in a home of South Dodge Street. When the Sisters arrived, they found it unfurnished. When enrollment jumped from forty the first day to nearly one hundred the second, neighbors offered supplies from their own homes. By December 9th, construction of the school and convent building were completed. Wagons transported the school equipment and the four teachers from South Dodge to Rush Street. (3)

The school had two floors. The lowest was for the boys and the second for the girls with a partition that divided each floor into two parts. For Mass, a portable altar was moved into the lower floor and the partition was removed. The first Mass was held on December 14th. School was held the next day. At the school's dedication in July, Bishop Hennessy decided on the spur-of-the moment to name the school St. Vincent's in honor of the Mother Vincent, the school's founder who had died the previous February. (4)

With population growth, St. Vincent's School expanded. In 1898 a second building (later St. Columbkille's Apartments) was constructed east of the first building. A one-story breezeway connected them. In 1914 a three-story addition connected the two buildings. A girls' high school was opened in 1917. The addition was destroyed by fire in 1919 but was quickly rebuilt. The new high school was named ST. VINCENT'S ACADEMY.

On May 24, 1887, Bishop Hennessy established a new parish under the holy patronage of St. Columbkille. With the Feast Day of St. Columbkille on June 9, Fr. John Fogarty was named the first pastor. (5) His plans for a church and rectory began immediately.

The Little White Church. Photo Courtesy: St. Columbkille Church, Alice Noethe, and Sue Schmitt

The frame church, built with $500 from the small congregation, was known as the "tabernacle on stilts" because of the mighty posts needed as foundation. (6) The hillside church was popularly known as "Noah's Ark" or "The Little White Church." Though simple and small, this building served the needs of the faithful for seventeen years and witnessed an estimated 8,000 masses, 600 baptisms and 100 weddings. The rectory was started during the fall of 1887 and completed in 1888.

Photo from church calendar (date unknown). Photo Courtesy: St. Columbkille Church, Alice Noethe, and Sue Schmitt

In 1903, continued growth of the parish prompted Archbishop John J. KEANE, to hire architect Guido BECK. Beck designed the new church with towering vaulted ceilings, colorful stained glass windows and graceful Gothic lines. On June 19, 1904, the 2,200-pound cornerstone for this building, at 1240 Rush, was set in place. The stone was given by Bishop O'Donnell, who claimed the same lineage as St. Columbkille, from Raphoe, Ireland. Beck had estimated the cost of construction to be $21,000. When bids came in higher, he removed the spire from his designs. (7) The church was dedicated on September 18, 1905. (8) In 1910 Msgr. Barry had work on the church tower and other improvements made. (9)

The frescoes on the church ceiling were painted in the 1920s by Bernard Hillig, a graduate of the Fine Arts Academy of Copenhagen. The Stations of the Cross, hand-painted murals on ZINC, were imported from Germany. A Wangerin Wickhardt pipe organ was installed in 1922. (10)

Special attention has been paid to the magnificent stained glass windows. These were commissioned by Guido Beck from the Ford Brothers Glass Studios in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As the church was being constructed, the windows were shipped to Dubuque. Installed in 1904, the windows added $1,500 to the cost of construction in all the designs, creating them, and their installation. Tall, high, and narrow lancet windows with pointed tops had hood molds, wall projections to protect the windows from weather.

The St. Columbkille windows are examples of Munich-style stained glass developed in mid-19th century Germany. These involved painting on large glass panels which were then fired in a kiln. At the Ford Brothers studio each panel was fired up to seven times before being considered finished. (11)

Financial issues also arose during the 1920s. The pew rental system, a major source of revenue, was replaced by the use of envelopes. In 1928 St. Columbkille parish purchased both the elementary and high schools. St. Vincent's, unlike other Catholic schools in Dubuque, had been tuition dependent. When the St. Vincent's Academy became St. Columbkille High School, boys were allowed to enroll. (12) St. Columbkille became a legal corporation complete with the Board of Directors including the Archbishop, Vicar General, Paster, and two Lay Representatives chosen by the former three. (13)

Church congregation in 1937. Photo Courtesy: St. Columbkille Church, Alice Noethe, and Sue Schmitt

On September 9, 1937 the church celebrated Pioneers' Day as part of the Centennial Year of the ARCHDIOCESE OF DUBUQUE. Sixty-two people who were original members of the parish and their neighbors attended a high mass in the morning. In the evening, the "pioneers" were guests at a potluck dinner. (14) Although it had already had a long history, St. Columbkille Parish did not celebrate its golden jubilee until 1940. (15)

The neighborhood served by St. Columbkille saw dramatic growth in population. In 1910 the parish was served one priest and one assistant. There were only two Sunday Masses. In 1969 the church offered six Sunday Masses and there were two assistant pastors. This occurred even as St. Joseph's parish was opened in 1949. (16)

Parish festivals became important financial resources. Perhaps the record was set in 1944 when the parish purchased a house on Coates Street and set up a raffle. Each parishioner was given $500 in raffle tickets to purchase or sell. The event raised enough money to pay for the house and provide $68,000 for parish campus improvements. (17)

A new rectory was built in 1963-1964 to replace the first parish house built in 1888.

In 2006 renovations to St. Columbkille's Church included removal of old carpet. When a beautiful hardwood floor in with inlaid patterns was discovered, the floors were polished and varnished. The Stations of the Cross were removed and cleaned with small accept lights added. A handicapped access-ramp to the sanctuary was added and the glass that had enclosed the "cry room" for infants was removed. A state-of-the-art audio-visual system was installed in Presentation Hall along with a ten-foot viewing screen. This allowed overflow congregations to witness Mass. In 2011 a new grand piano was dedicated. (18)


The 1987 through 2014 Dubuque City Directory listed 1240 Rush St.



1. Koch, Kevin. "Saint Columbkille Catholic Church," Strasbourg, France, Editions du Signe, 2011, p. 4

2. Koch, p. 7

3. Koch, p. 8-9

4. Koch, p. 9

5. "Church is 53 Years Old Here," Telegraph Herald, July 14, 1940, p. 4

6. Koch, p. 12

7. Koch, p. 14

8. Koch, p. 8

9. "Church is 53 Years..."

10. Koch, p. 20

11. London, Michelle, "Midwest Masters," Telegraph Herald, August 7, 2021, p. 7A

12. Koch, p. 11

13. Smith-Noggle, Laura, Seed/Harvest: A History of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Dubuque: Archdiocese of Dubuque Press, 1987, p. 63

14. "Pioneers' Day to be Observed," Telegraph Herald, Sept. 5, 1937, p. 3

15. "Church is 53 Years..."

16. Koch, p. 28

17. Ibid.

18. Koch, p. 34-35