St. Henry and St. Mary become one
By Sharon Witty
Special to The Witness
MARSHALLTOWN — In the Marshalltown Catholic community, on June 30, the word was celebrate. Celebrate the 150th anniversary of Catholicism in Marshall County. Celebrate the unification of Immaculate Conception, St. Henry and St. Mary parishes into one parish, St. Francis of Assisi Parish, as of July 1, 2019.
Archbishop Michael Jackels began the celebration with a 10 a.m. outdoor Mass, followed by an indoor luncheon and a special program. To conclude the celebration, children and adults gathered outside to break a piñata.
When celebration participants were asked, “How do you feel/what do you think of this unification?” husband and wife Lean and Mike Peschong agreed, “It’s a good thing. It will be a positive, bringing the whole parish together, working together.”
Father Greg Bahl, St. Mary pastor during the task force tenure, commented, “This unification is to everyone’s advantage, such an expression of unity.”
“It’s exciting,” said Father Tom Braak, who graduated from Marshalltown’s Lenihan Catholic High School, went on to seminary, was ordained, served as pastor to St. Henry’s congregation from 1986-1999 and retired to Marshalltown. “So important for us to realize we can be one people.”
Archbishop Jackels agreed, “It’s wonderful. It’s a good expression of our belief that we express at every Mass, ‘We believe in … one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.’”
But perhaps Renee Hernandez said it best, “It’s a good and beautiful thing, to become one community. It’s one way to show God we are all brothers and sisters.”
Archbishop John J. Hennessy created the first Marshall County Catholic jurisdiction on March 1, 1869. He named it Immaculate Conception, and it included all of Marshall County and area to the west. Archbishop Hennessy assigned Father William Walsh as Immaculate Conception’s first pastor, who oversaw the construction of a church building on the south side of First Street in Marshalltown.
Father Peter J. Portz, the father of Marshalltown’s Catholic school system, became the third pastor of Immaculate Conception. He asked the Congregation of the Holy Humility of Mary sisters, based in Ottumwa, to staff the school. They agreed, and St. Mary School opened on Sept. 8, 1878.
After the Civil War, Americans began to move west. As Marshalltown’s population increased, so did Immaculate Conception’s membership. A larger building was needed. A new church, the present St. Mary Church, was constructed three blocks east of the first church and dedicated on Oct. 15, 1890, the name changed to St. Mary.
By 1957, Marshalltown’s Catholic population had burgeoned. St. Mary’s four priests celebrated five Masses each weekend — in the church sanctuary, at Mercy Hospital and at the Iowa Soldiers Home. Still, it was standing room only at most services.
With Archbishop Leo Binz’s blessing, Monsignor Skahill, St. Mary pastor, began a capital drive in 1957 to build a second Catholic church, several blocks south of St. Mary Parish. St. Henry Parish, with an attached school, was canonically established on July 15, 1959. And the Marshalltown Area Catholic School system, consisting of St. Mary School and St. Henry School, was also established.
As the number of priests in the archdiocese decreased, small parishes began to be closed. Such was the fate of Immaculate Conception Parish born in 1877, located in Haverhill, a few miles south of Marshalltown. When the parish became an oratory in 2007, the majority of Immaculate Conception’s members joined St. Henry.
An ancient anecdote states, “What goes around, comes around.” In a 2011 survey, members of the two parishes indicated their support for the two parishes to become one. Up to that time, each parish had supported its own school, but the parish councils approved the study of unifying the schools. A deteriorating St. Mary’s school structure exacerbated that process. St. Henry School was renovated, and in 2015, students moved into St. Francis School. Once again, Marshalltown had one Catholic school.
The two parishes began to combine more resources to avoid duplication and save costs. The two parish councils began to meet monthly in a bi-parish council meeting. In 2012, the faith formation programs were joined, and in 2014, the youth ministry programs became one.
The parish priests began taking turns celebrating the daily Masses at each parish. The staff and bi-parish council continued to discuss the unification of the two. In January 2018, Archbishop Jackels authorized a task force to study unification. Consisting of members from both parishes, the task force was led by the archdiocese’s director of pastoral planning.
The task force met for six months. At the end of their study, they recommended to Archbishop Jackels the two parishes become one — once again. Archbishop Jackels agreed. And as they say, “The rest is history,” but not exactly. Much work has been done, and much continues to need to be done, yet.
Witty is a member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Marshalltown.
A girl hits a piñata as two boys look on during the celebration June 30 in Marshalltown that marked the unification of two parishes. (Contributed photo)