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Encyclopedia Dubuque


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Saint Mary's Church

ST. MARY'S CATHOLIC CHURCH. In 1849 crowded conditions at St. Raphael's Church and inability to adequately minister to the needs of German-speaking families in Dubuque led Bishop Mathias LORAS to grant permission for forty German families to form a new congregation. The parish was first called Holy Trinity.

The site for the new church at the northeast corner of 8th and White STREETS was donated by Gerhard Hueckels. Stone for the church came from home quarries. It was the first German Catholic Church to be built in Dubuque and the second Catholic church.

Due to a shortage of priests, the church had no resident pastor but was attended by Father Gerhard H. Plathe, a missionary. The first permanent pastor, Father William Edmonds, took office on New Year's Eve 1852. Beginning in 1863, with the leadership of Father George Fendrick, members of the church organized the GERMAN ROMAN CATHOLIC BUILDING ASSOCIATION OF DUBUQUE whose goal was to construct another church to help serve a parish that contained nearly three hundred families.

In 1864 the Association attempted to purchase the Presbyterian Seminary for fifteen thousand dollars. Meeting opposition from the city's Protestants, the group bought an orchard that was part of the Langworthy estate. This land, purchased for three thousand dollars, became the site of St. Mary's.

The construction of the present church was directed by Father Aloysius Meis. John MULLANY, the architect of ST. RAPHAEL'S CATHEDRAL, was chosen to draw the plans. The 252-foot tower, the highest in Dubuque, was even then considered one of the finest to be found in the Mississippi Valley. Excavation and construction work on the church found boys and men of the parish doing much of the labor.

When the foundation of the church was finished on September 5, 1864, only $3.03 was left in the treasury. Additional donations and fund-raising brought in the remaining $80,000 needed to construct the church. E. Brielmaier, an architect, sculptor, and builder, was responsible for much of the interior work of the church. A native of Germany, he came to the United States with his parents in 1850 and settled in Ohio. Brielmaier learned his trade in Cincinnati and then moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1873 where he operated his business from 192 to 200 Sherman Street. He first worked with one assistant. As his business gradually increased, he employed from thirteen to fifteen men.

The dedication of the GOTHIC REVIVAL ARCHITECTURE church was delivered by Reverend John HENNESSY on February 10, 1867. In the early 1870s, Hook and Hastings Company of Boston, an important 19th century organ builder, installed a three manual tracker-action organ in the choir loft. In 1965 the organ was rebuilt, and the action was changed to electric.

From 1876 to 1883, three bells were installed in the bell tower. These were dedicated to St. John, the Apostle, the Blessed Virgin, and the Crucifixion. The largest bell weighs 5,000 pounds. In 1946 parishioner William H. KLAUER donated automatic bell-ringing equipment.

Beginning in 1900, SAINT MARY'S CASINO at 16th and White STREETS became the center of parish social life. St. Mary's was the only parish in Dubuque at that time to offer both a basketball and football team. In 1959 the building became the new SAINT MARY'S SCHOOL. In 2001 the building was remodeled to house an early childhood center.

Photo courtesy: Theresa Crabill
Photo courtesy: Theresa Crabill

In 1912 several improvements were made to the interior of the church. The sanctuary was enlarged, two chapels were built in the rear of the church, four side entrances were built and the interior was greatly enhanced when artistic "way of the cross" paintings, stained glass windows and statuary, all from Munich, Germany, were installed. The windows were purchased from the Zetteler Company. F.X. Zetteler, the designer of the windows, was recognized as a master artist. These twelve windows depicted the life of the Blessed Virgin from her presentation in the temple to the scene of her death. The windows were rushed out of Germany prior to the start of WORLD WAR I. A letter in the files of the parish from the glass studios expressed their apprehension that war might overtake them before the completed windows could be sent to the United States.

Photo courtesy: Theresa Crabill

An elaborate and artistic fresco plan was also inaugurated at this time. The Brielmaiers drew the plans in detail. When the elder Brielmaier died, the work was sublet to the Joseph Walter Company, church decorators of Dubuque. The large mural of the Assumption was painted by Clotlida Brielmaier.

Photo courtesy: Theresa Crabill

A rose window behind the main altar was covered and Clotilda painted a large mural of the Assumption to occupy the space. She felt that since the church was under the patronage of the Assumption of Mary this should be the theme of the mural and that it should be large enough that eyes are drawn to it as one enters the church. The mural, 35 feet high, was begun on canvas in three sections in Miss Brielmaier's studio. After it was mounted in the church behind the main altar, she finished the work there. In 1943 the mural started fading and curling. Carl Stringham, a church artist from St. Louis, was able to restore it.

Photo courtesy: Theresa Crabill

In 1928 the "Altar of St. Mary" was placed in the church. Made of Italian Carrara marble, the altar contained relics of St. Anthony, St. Francis, St. Peter Canisius, and St. Clement Hofbauer. Above the altar was the mosaic picture of "Mary of the Angels" which was imported from Munich.

St. Mary's parish was asked to contribute 9 percent or $315,000 toward the building program of WAHLERT HIGH SCHOOL. Between the spring and September of 1965, nearly half of the $93,000 pledge for the Dubuque Franciscan Sister's Development Campaign, recognizing eighty-six years of teaching at St. Mary's, had been received in cash.

On January 9, 1976, near disaster struck St. Mary Church when a fire started in the next to the Nativity scene in front of the St. Joseph altar. Smoke escaped above the pipes of the organ in the choir loft and out the steeple, alerting people of the danger. The fire was so hot that it melted light fixtures. The FIRE DEPARTMENT responded promptly, and the church was miraculously saved.

In 1999 St. Mary Parish clustered with its neighboring parish, St. Patrick. Both parishes retained their individual identifies, but shared a pastoral administrator and priests. In the 1990s, St. Mary's built a new handicapped entrance located at the northeast corner of the church.

In 2009 the former sisters' convent located on Jackson Street housed MARIA HOUSE. The school building located at the corner of 15th and Jackson housed LANTERN CENTER. Also located in the building was the Immigration Office for the ARCHDIOCESE OF DUBUQUE.

St. Mary's Church, located at 1584 White, was the start of four parishes in Dubuque. Sacred Heart was established in 1879. Holy Ghost was developed in 1896, followed by Holy Trinity in 1910, and Nativity in 1922.

The 1987 Dubuque City Directory listed 1584 White.

On July 15, 2009, officials with St. Mary's announced their recommendation to close the church that had served the community for 142 years. Reasons cited included declining church membership and increasing debt.

On May 25, 2010 the final Mass was led in the church by Archbishop Jerome G. HANUS.

In September, 2010 Dubuque archdiocese officials considered several options while still maintaining the goal of selling the church and its adjacent rectory to pay off the debt of St. Mary's parish. On September 8, 2010 representatives from the ARCHDIOCESE OF DUBUQUE and other dioceses in Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin were invited to tour the church and choose statues, chalices, banners, crucifixes and other items that could be used in their own churches.