Ellsworth church still going strong: St. Mary's observing 125 years
ELLSWORTH -- The congregation has changed, the buildings have been renovated and the associated school is gone, but St. Mary's Church prospers, still vital at 125 years old.
"The people will join hands, and it's going to be a thriving community, even with fewer people, because those who remain are determined that that's what it will be," said the Rev. Tom Jennings, pastor for both St. Mary's and its sister congregation, St. Catherine Church in Luverne.
The two churches together maintain a small staff, including Parish Administrator Mary McLaughlin, Faith Formation Director Katie Baustian and Administrative Assistant Jackie Wieneke. Additionally, the Rev. Eugene Egan serves as a senior priest for the congregations, and Bill Deutsch serves as custodian for St. Mary's.
The church's membership includes 75 families.
"They have remarkable faith. They're hard-working farmers," Jennings said. "They have an awareness of their exceptional history, and they want to keep that alive."
The church has recently come out of a long period in which there were very few young children and is finding itself revitalized by the influx of young families.
"I would say there's a new sense of pride in the parish, and a new sense of volunteerism," Jennings said. "They take good care of the church and their children. They're very good parents here."
Jennings expressed confidence in the people of his parish, and believes they will continue to succeed in the future.
"There's a lot of pride in the community of Ellsworth as well. They're aware of their identity ... in a good way," Jennings added, praising the people and churches of Ellsworth for working well together. "There's a wonderful ecumenical spirit in town."
The founding of the church
According to "St. Mary's Catholic Church: Centennial History," the Irish who settled in the Ellsworth area brought their faith with them in 1880 from Woburn, Mass. Before St. Mary's was formally organized, local Catholics worshipped in homes or attended nearby churches, and the Rev. C.J. Knaupf visited once a month to say Mass.
Ellsworth was incorporated as a town in 1884, and in 1885, St. Mary's Parish was organized. At the time of its first Mass on Dec. 25, 1885, there were 40 members.
Initially, priests from Catholic parishes in Luverne ministered to the congregation, until St. Mary's gained its first resident priest, the Rev. Francis Hartlieb, in 1900.
The original church building, which still stands today, was made of wood and featured an 88-foot steeple, but had no basement.
In 1903, the church's sanctuary was expanded with the addition of a transept -- which changed the building's shape from a rectangular oblong into that of a cross, adding two seating areas on either side of the altar. The sacristy -- a church's storage area -- was moved back to accommodate the transept.
"The present crowded condition of the church and the growing congregation compel the members to build," stated the Ellsworth News.
The 30- by 56-foot addition was meant to provide seating for 180 additional people -- a sign of the church's growth. In 1904 St. Mary's received a new furnace, and in 1908, a new sacristy was built. Stained-glass windows were added to the church some time between its construction and 1910, many of which bear hearts -- classic symbols of charity and love.
A more important addition to the parish was made in 1911, when St. Mary's School was built. At the time, it cost $18,000, and it was the only parish school in its diocese to have a full high school.
During its first year, 120 students enrolled in St. Mary's. Graduating classes tended to be small, from the first group of five students in 1911 to a final class of nine pupils in 1952, though some classes were larger.
"That was the heart of the parish -- the school," Jennings said.
The school building had 15 rooms, and the top floor housed boarding pupils and, for a time, the nuns who served as teachers. The school also included a kitchen and dining area and an office, as well as a chapel where Mass was offered every day.
The school was known for its basketball program, and a few trophies from old tournaments are still around.
At least 250 students graduated from St. Mary's, and at least 200 more attended it for at least a year.
In addition to the school and the church, St. Mary's Parish also included a rectory, built in 1917 for $10,000, and a convent, which housed the nuns who taught at the parochial school.
The church building was raised and a basement with a kitchen added in 1925. The building's exterior was redone with stucco, a style still maintained today.
In 40 years, the church had grown from 40 members to 440, according to "Centennial."
But society began to change, and the population began to shift.
"Due to financial problems, poor enrollment, and lack of teaching Sisters, the high school department was forced to close" in 1952, states the "Centennial."
Franciscan nuns from Rochester continued to staff the grade school, but eventually, teachers simply could not be found, and the grade school closed its doors in 1966. Ellsworth High School rented the building and continued to use the classrooms until Thanksgiving 1977, when St. Mary's School was razed to the ground.
In 1969, the parishes were reorganized, and St. Mary's once again became a sister congregation of a larger church, this time St. Adrian's Parish out of Adrian. In 1995, the diocese was again reorganized, and St. Mary's was paired with its old partner, St. Catherine's.
The church's sanctuary, just like its congregation, has weathered many changes. Initially, there were three altars at the front of the church, all very ornate and complex.
Later, a pulpit was added to the church, as well as a hardwood communion railing. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, which resulted in many theological and practical changes in the Catholic Church, St. Mary's lost its side altars and communion railing, and its pulpit was restyled. The altar, too, was brought forward between the three seating areas.
In 1970, the church was remodeled for energy efficiency, with a lowered ceiling and wood paneling on the walls. New light fixtures, pews and carpets were installed. In 1980, a new entryway was added, and in 2004 a steel roof was added.
The bell tower was dedicated to the Rev. Gene Egan in 2004, in honor of his 50th year as a priest. The church's exterior received its most recent renovation in 2007-2008.
St. Mary's celebrated its 125th anniversary Mass in December 2010 and will host a 125th anniversary Mass celebration in July. The parish will also celebrate the 100th anniversary of St. Mary's Council of the Knights of Columbus. Bill and Jean Deutsch will also be honored at the ceremony for their exceptional volunteer services.