Saint Mary's Catholic Church (Dubuque, Iowa)

Saint Mary's Catholic Church (Dubuque, Iowa)

Saint Mary's Catholic Church is a parish of the Archdiocese of Dubuque. The church is located in Dubuque, Iowa, United States, at the corner of 15th and White Streets. The church is recognizable by its 252 foot tall steeple – one of the tallest steeples in the area.


The beginning

During the 1840s, a number of German families moved to the city of Dubuque. Many of these families were Catholic. Initially, they attended mass at St. Raphael's Cathedral. However, the cathedral was becoming quite crowded due to the growing German and Irish populations of the city. Also, Bishop Mathias Loras was having difficulty with ensuring that the German families were adequately cared for.

In 1849, Bishop Loras granted permission for forty German families to form a new parish. Gerhard Hueckels donated land at the corner of 8th and White Streets in Dubuque. In 1850, a church was built on the land. This church, named Holy Trinity, was built of native stone with a tower about twenty feet tall.

For the first few years, there was a lack of priests in the still young diocese. The people of Holy Trinity parish were served at first by a missionary, Father Gerhard Plathe. Finally in 1853, they were given a resident priest, Father William Edmonds.

Soon the first major influx of German immigrants occurred. The small Holy Trinity church build was filled to capacity. In 1863, the pastor, Father George Fendrick, and members of the parish founded the "German Roman Catholic Association of Dubuque." Their goal was to build a new church to support the parish - which now had over 300 families. At first, they attempted to purchase the Presbyterian Seminary in Dubuque for $15,000. After other Christian denominations opposed this plan, the group instead purchased an orchard for $3,000. This site, about seven blocks north of the Holy Trinity Church, is the site of the current church.

Construction of the New St. Mary's Church

In 1864, construction was begun on the new church. The plans were designed by architect John Mullany, who had designed the present Cathedral building. (To this day, some note with humor that because of Mullany's Irish background that it took an Irishman to design a good German church). Father Aloysius Meis directed the construction. The new building was done in Gothic Architecture style.

As was done with many other churches during the 19th century, most of the excavation and construction work was done by the men of the parish. By the time the foundation was complete in September 1864, only $3.03 was left in the treasury. The remaining $80,000 needed to finish the church was brought in through the use of more fundraisers and additional donations.

From 1867 to 1922

On February 10, 1867 Bishop John Hennessy dedicated the new St. Mary's Church. Over the next fifty-five years, the population of Dubuque continued to grow. This was especially true in the 1880s with the arrival of the Milwaukee Railroad shops. St. Mary's was the mother parish of four other area parishes. Sacred Heart was established in 1879, followed by Holy Ghost in 1896. In 1910, a new Holy Trinity Church was built near Eagle Point Park in Dubuque in memory of the first church in Dubuque to carry that name. Finally in 1922, Nativity parish was built near what today is called Loras College.

In the early 1870s, the Hook and Hastings Company - a prominent 19th century organ builder - installed an organ in the choir loft. This organ was placed in a visually impressive case. The organ was remodeled and enlarged over the years, and it currently has three manuals and 33 stops.

The sanctuary was extended in 1911, followed by the construction of two small chapels at the rear of the church. In 1914, stained glass windows built in Bavaria were installed in the church - the shipment of the windows was nearly stopped because of the outbreak of World War I.

From 1922 to the present

In 1935, Father Aloysius Schmitt was ordained in Rome, Italy. He returned to the United States, and his first assignment was as an associate at Saint Mary's Church. In 1941, he was killed in the attack at Pearl Harbor - becoming the first chaplain of any faith to die in the Second World War.

In the early 1970s, the reforms of the Second Vatican Council were implemented. The parish did remove the communion rail, and place a new altar in the sanctuary that faced the congregation. However, the original high and side altars were left largely intact.

The movie F.I.S.T., which was largely filmed in Dubuque had a scene which featured exterior shots of St. Mary's Church. The scene, which showed Sylvester Stallone and Melinda Dillon sitting and talking on a hill overlooking the city clearly showed St. Mary's Church in the background.

In recent years, St. Mary's Church has combined efforts with the nearby St. Patrick's Church. The two parishes share school facilities, and administrative staff. The parish has felt the results of the Priest shortage. The parish does have a priest that leads Mass, but most of the administrative work is now handled by a Deacon.

In the 1990s, St. Mary's built a new handicapped entrance. This entrance is located at the northeast corner of the church, and has an elevator. Before that, the church was not as accessible as other churches in the area.

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