History of St. Mary's Church
The town of Avoca was platted in 1869 after the Rock Island railroad came through southwestern Iowa. The first settlers
called it "Pacific;" then it was changed to "Botna." An excursion of young people on the railroad prompted someone to
recall Tom Moore's Sweet Vale of Avoca, and the townsmen were inspired to call the town "Avoca." It was incorporated
as "Avoca" in 1875.
Catholics in the Avoca area were first attended in 1872 by Father B. P. McMenomy of Council Bluffs, and Mass was said in
the school or at True's Hall in the Exchange block.
One of the first, or perhaps the first, Catholic family to settle in this area was the Healy family. They emigrated
from Massachusetts to Iowa in 1846 and settled east of old Newtown. They then moved into Newtown when it first became
a small village, and eventually moved to Avoca. Mrs. Ellen Healy, mother of Captain Healy, died on May 6, 1874.
Captain Healy was a veteran of the Civil War between the States.
On May 21, 1874, the Avoca Delta (Avoca's first newspaper) had the following item: "Catholic services were
held in the school house last Sunday. Five hundred dollars, in addition to some four or five hundred subscribed sometime
since, toward the erection of a church at this place. It is expected that the edifice will be completed before cold
weather. Capt. Healy, J. M. Long, and Nicholas Casey are the building committee. The church has a membership here
of over one hundred."
The Delta reported on July 9, 1874 that "Work on the new Catholic church in Avoca will open all along the line
about the first of September." Then on Sept. 3, 1874, the Delta noted: "Catholic services were held in
the school house last Sabbath. Father McMenomy of Council Bluffs officiating. Twelve hundred dollars was raised
for the purpose of erecting a church in Avoca and as soon as the plans and specifications are furnished, operations will be
commenced. The church will be about 28' x 40' in size and will be situated on the corner of Maple and Crocker Streets,
and when completed will be quite an addition to that part of town. The church comprieses of about fifteen families."
This news item appeared on Sept. 10, 1874: "Plans and specifications for the new Catholic church have arrived and
work will soon commence."
Another interesting bit of news from the Delta reports: "Dec. 3, 1874, a portion of the scaffolding on the
new Catholic church gave way on Tuesday afternoon and two carpenters, John Ketchum, and a man by the name of Carr fell a distance
of about eighteen feet. Ketchum received a bruised and sprained ankle, while Carr's injuries were thought to be more
In the year 1875, the Catholic church, St. Mary's, in Avoca became a reality under the guidance of Father McMenomy who
had Father W. Dunn as an assistant. The church was built of wood and was erected at a cost of $2,000. It had no
foyer nor did it have a sacristy. In later years the church was expanded and modified.
A short time after the church was established, it was placed under the supervision of Father Gaule of Atlantic, Iowa, and
it remained under his care for several years.
The first marriage in the new church was Josephine Baker to Joseph McCauley on November 14, 1875. Mr. McCauley was
one of the carpenters who worked on the church.
Eighteen eighty-three brought the first resident priest to St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Walnut, Iowa. He was
Father Richard Dollard, and he served Avoca as his mission church from 1883 to 1898.
St. Mary's oldest parishioner in 1975 was Mrs. Catherine Coan (Russell). Father Dollard baptized her on May 24, 1885.
Her parents were John Coan and Mary Cronican; and her sponsors in baptism were Daniel McCarthy and Mary W. Kersin. She
married Frank J. Russell on May 29, 1905. Witnesses to this marriage were Frank Coan and May L. Coan with Father Daniel
McAllister officiating. Mrs. Russell, at 90, was still a participating member of St. Mary's Church in 1975.
Mary Gorman (O'Neill) was baptized by Father Dollard on April 26, 1891. She was the daughter of Dennis Gorman and
Mary Ann Shanahan, and her sponsors in baptism were John McDermott and Mrs. Prendergast. On June 7, 1917, she was married
in St. Mary's Church to Frank O'Neill, Hancock, by Father H. J. Albers.
Norah Coan (Donaldson), daughter of John Coan and Mary Cronican was baptized by Father Dollard on June 4, 1893, and her
sponsors were Frank McDermott and Katie Wokersein. She was married to Bernard E. Donaldson on September 10, 1923 by
Father H. J. Alberts.
Both Mrs. O'Neill and Mrs. Donaldson were active members of St. Mary's in 1975.
Annie Wise, daughter of George Wise and Elizabeth Meltner was born January 10, 1866. On January 1, 1891, she entered
the Sisters of Mercy Order and made her profession in this Order in 1893. She took the name Sister Mary Clare.
She celebrated her 50th anniversary as a Nun on August 24, 1943.
Father Joseph Hanson came in 1898 to serve as the first resident pastor of St. Mary's Church, Avoca. Harlan and Carson
were given to St. Mary's as missions until 1918 when Harlan became a parish. Father Hanson built a rectory in 1900 and
had a choir loft and confessionals added to the church. Previously, the confessional was a prie-dieu at the altar railing.
He also had electricity installed in the church and the rectory. The church had been lighted by bracket-lamps near the
The first baptism Father Hanson had as resident pastor of St. Mary's was on October 2, 1898 for Anna O'Neill, daughter
of Joseph O'Neill and Katie Sinnett.
On November 1, 1900, Bernard O'Neill, son of Joseph O'Neill and Katie Sinnett was baptized by Father Hanson. His
sponsors were Mr. and Mrs. William O'Neill. He was married to Erma Fletcher on May 20, 1921 by Father H. J. Albers.
Bernard O'Neill's sister, Agnes O'Neill Christensen, was baptized May 1, 1904, and her sponsors were Mr. and Mrs. James McDermott.
July 4, 1923, she married Clarence Christensen Sr.
Father Hanson was succeeded by Father J. C. White, who came to St. Mary's for a few months in 1904. During this time,
he baptized Lawrence P. Carroll, son of Edward Carroll and Mary O. Donaldson. His sponsors were John Sinnett and Mary
A. Coan. On January 22, 1931, he married Karla Priester.
Father Henry Malone was in residence at St. Mary's for four or five months before Father Daniel McAllister was assigned
to this parish. Fathe McAllister was here from 1905 until 1908, and during this time, he brought the main altar from
Westphalia, Iowa and had the entire church redecorated.
In 1908, Father Herman Albers came and was here twenty-five years until 1933. He added improvements to the church:
a vestibule, and had furnaces installed in the church and in the rectory, and had the church windows replaced with stained
glass. Harlan, Iowa was released as a mission during Father Albers' tenure when in 1918, Harlan was able to have a resident
pastor. In 1915, St. Patrick's Church, Walnut, became a mission to St. Mary's under Father Albers' care.
The women of St. Mary's parish had a stand at the County Fair at this time, where they earned the money for a new Lyon
and Healy organ which was shipped from Chicago. It was considered quite a task for the women to undertake at that time.
Father Valentine Cashman followed Father Albers in 1933. He made repairs to the sanctuary. Carson, Iowa was
still a mission, but was disbanded due to lack of parishioners. Father Cashman died in 1947 which left St. Mary's without
Shortly after the death of Father Cashman, Father Emil J. Schuman came to St. Mary's and while in Avoca realized the need
of a larger church. A building fund was started, and many money-making projects were used to add to this fund.
He bought new statues of St. Joseph and of the Blessed Virgin Mary; also a Sanctuary lamp and the Vigil-light Stand.
He had the rectory completely renovated and redecorated, enclosed the back porch, and built a garage. Father Schuman
died in 1955.
Father Urban O'Rourke and Father Jerome Schnitker served briefly at St. Mary's until Father Joseph Schulte came in July
of 1955. During his years at St. Mary's, the new church was built. In 1956, the old church was torn down by the
men of the parish to make room for the new church. The last Mass in the old St. Mary's was read by Msgr. Hanson who
was invited to come back for the occasion; and he was guest of honor at a parish dinner. Father Arthur Ring, who was
baptized at St. Mary's in 1911, delivered the sermon.
The new church was blessed by Bishop Edward C. Daley of the Diocese of Des Moines on March 3, 1957. On that same
day, the first High Mass was celebrated in the church. On February 1, 1961, a ceremony was held to burn the final note
Father LaVern Wingert succeeded Father Schulte on October 1, 1969. His first major improvement to the church property
was the building of a new rectory and CCD center in 1970.
The old house was torn down and all material salvaged and cleaned. The lumber and fixtures and some furniture were
sold at public auction. The new rectory, built on the same site as the seventy-year-old former rectory, comprises an
eight-room, one-floor structure, with a CCD center at basement level and which joins the church hall. The house is centrally
air-conditioned, and has a central vacuum system for cleaning purposes. It is carpeted and completely furnished.
One outstanding feature is a large fireplace wall which extends around into the kitchen area that is tastefully done in feather-rock.
Father Wingert planned and executed many of these plans and features.
The ceiling of the church was lowered and new light fixtures installed. Father Wingert drew plans for new Sanctuary
furniture that were carried out and built by a parishioner; and a fund was organized for the purpose of replacing the windows
with stained glass, done in a modern manner in keeping with the general architecture of the church. In the fall of 1973,
the new windows were installed.
Several windows were given as memorials: One to the memory of Mrs. Edith Wyland; another to George and Hertha Gross.
One window was given in memory of Will and Grace Gross; and one for the Wise family.
Other improvements have been the redecorating of the church and church hall by members of the congregation. The pews
were refinished, and the church carpeted. Doors were added to the inside entry-way of the church to make a vestibule.
The kitchen in the church hall was remodeled and new equipment installed.
The "Mary" on the cover of the Centenniel book was designed and brazed by Father Wingert with the help of a parishioner.
It had a special place to the right of the Sanctuary. The Corpus which hung on the cross on the east wall of the Sanctuary
was made in the same manner. The St. Joseph niche, and the patio with its riot of blooming roses and flowers all spring,
summer, and fall were Father Wingert's special projects.
Through prudent planning and an eye for beauty, Father Wingert did much to make St. Mary's outstanding. All was done
on a "pay-as-you-go" basis, and the parish was debt-free.
Along with the teachings of Vatican II, St. Mary's was guided by the Parish Council. Members of the Council were
nominated by the whole church community; and after everyone had a chance to decide whether or not to run for a particular
office, elections took place. Members were elected for a three-year period, and each member assumed full responsibility
for his office. The Council consisted of seven members for the following areas: Liturgy, Finance, Family Life,
Community Affairs, Ecumenism, Education, and Parish Relations. St. Mary's Church Council members were all concerned
with the spiritual and physical growth of the church community, and an encouragement to the pastor.
(This ends the 1975 Centenniel book information.)
St Marys 1975
The following were priests in the Avoca/Walnut parishes continuing from then to the present time:
- Father LaVern Wingert ~ 1969 - 1979
- Father Paul Monahan ~ 1979 - July 1985
- Father Phil Lawler ~ July 1985 - 1989
- Father James Polich ~ 1989 - July 1995
- Father Fred Reischl ~ July 1995 - July 2000
- Father John Frost ~ October 25, 2000 - Present