Archdiocese’s history brims with pioneers and visionaries

| May 24, 2016 | 0 Comments
A fresco by local artist Mark Balma in a transcept of the Cathedral of St. Paul depicts Bishop Joseph Cretin arriving by boat in 1851 to take possession of the new Diocese of St. Paul. He is greeted at Pig’s Eye Landing on the Mississippi River by Father Augustin Ravoux, a Native American family and early settlers. The log St. Paul Chapel that would become the diocese’s first cathedral is in the background on the then sparsely populated bluff. Courtesy the Cathedral of St. Paul

A fresco by local artist Mark Balma in a transcept of the Cathedral of St. Paul depicts Bishop Joseph Cretin arriving by boat in 1851 to take possession of the new Diocese of St. Paul. He is greeted at Pig’s Eye Landing on the Mississippi River by Father Augustin Ravoux, a Native American family and early settlers. The log St. Paul Chapel that would become the diocese’s first cathedral is in the background on the then sparsely populated bluff. Courtesy the Cathedral of St. Paul

More than 150 years after Father Louis Hennepin traveled down the Mississippi River and first saw what in 1680 he named St. Anthony Falls — the site of present-day Minneapolis — French missionaries came to Minnesota filled with zeal to bring the faith to native tribes.

When Fathers Lucien Galtier and Augustin Ravoux arrived in the middle of the 19th century, they did evangelize among the local native people. Father Ravoux even printed a catechism in a Sioux dialect that included prayers and songs.

But the priests found other duties on the shores of the upper Mississippi, including ministering to soldiers and their families at Fort Snelling, as well as to settlers near a tavern owned by one Pierre Parrant, better known by the nickname “Pig’s Eye.”

They also said Mass for fur traders across the river from the fort in Mendota, the first permanent Catholic presence in the area, beginning in 1840, and still the site of St. Peter Church, the oldest parish in continual existence in the archdiocese.

Log cathedral

It was at Pig’s Eye Landing on the Mississippi that French Catholic farmers donated land and built a rough log chapel where on Nov. 1, 1841, Father Galtier celebrated Mass and dedicated the chapel to St. Paul. The frontier village came to be known by that apostle’s name.

Nine years later, in 1850, a bishop was assigned and the Diocese of St. Paul was established. When Bishop Joseph Cretin came up the Mississippi by steamer in 1851, the log chapel became the diocese’s first cathedral.

At the time, there were some 3,000 Catholics in the diocese, which encompassed what was then the Minnesota Territory, including all of the present states of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Immigrants find a home

The population expanded quickly.

Farmers and lumbermen, migrants from eastern states and Catholic immigrants — especially from Germany and Ireland — came to carve new lives out of the prairie and wilderness.

Father Francis Xavier Pierz wrote in German to invite his former countrymen to bring their families to settle the new land. Later, to ensure that widows and orphans were taken care of in their adopted country, German Catholics founded the Catholic Aid Association, a fraternal organization today known by the name Catholic United Financial.

Among the Irish families who arrived in 1852 was 13-year-old John Ireland, who became the visionary archbishop of St. Paul, a dominant figure in the American Church. Archbishop Ireland promoted the idea that Catholics should take an active participation in civic life. At a time of prejudice against Catholics, he preached that Catholics were good Americans and that the freedom and democracy of the United States offered fertile ground for the practice of the faith.

Early on, priests and women religious were recruited from Europe to serve the needs of Catholics in the region; Archbishop Ireland wanted home-grown, American priests, and founded the St. Paul Seminary in 1894 to train them, thanks in large part to funding by Great Northern Railway magnate James J. Hill, whose wife, Mary (nee Mehegan), was an Irish Catholic.

In 1905, Archbishop Ireland went against the social taboos of his day to admit a black man to the seminary, and five years later ordained Father Stephen Louis Theobald a priest of the diocese.

Early education

Four Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet opened a school just days after they arrived in 1851, then expanded their ministry to health care, serving heroically when a cholera epidemic struck in 1854.

The St. Joseph Sisters’ legacy of that early St. Joseph Academy lives today through St. Catherine University, founded by Archbishop Ireland’s sister, Mother Seraphine Ireland. The sisters founded hospitals in both Minneapolis (St. Mary’s) and St. Paul (St. Joseph’s), and, as the health care needs of the population changed, in the 1990s they developed St. Mary’s Health Clinics, which bring medical services to the poor.

Due to the efforts of religious orders and dedicated lay men and women, Catholic education and formation has been a high priority for the Catholic community in the archdiocese.

Archbishop Ireland founded the College (now university) of St. Thomas in St. Paul, an archdiocesan owned institution of higher education. It has campuses in both the Twin Cities and a law school.

Through the sacrifices and dedication of a variety of communities of women and men religious and laity, Catholic elementary and high schools were staffed across the archdiocese.

In turn, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has shared the expertise of its leaders in the education field with Catholics around the country. St. Joseph of Carondelet Sister Catherine McNamee served as president of the National Catholic Education Association, and Father Raymond Lucker — later Bishop Lucker of New Ulm — was the first director of the Department of Education of the U.S. Catholic Conference (forerunner of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.)

In 1984, Winona-based St. Mary’s University of Minnesota began offering graduate-level programs at a satellite campus just south of downtown Minneapolis. The Christian Brothers school continues to develop its programs in the Twin Cities and also offers online educational opportunities.


Archbishop Ireland conceived the idea of building great cathedrals in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, and had them under construction at the same time early in the 20th century. Both were designed by architect Emmanuel L. Masqueray.

The Basilica of St. Mary, the white, wedding cake-like church that graces the intersection of 17th Street and Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, was the first church in the United States to be titled a basilica and continues to serve as a landmark on the edge of downtown west of the Mississippi River.

East of the Mississippi, the Cathedral of St. Paul stands atop what is now called Cathedral Hill, overlooking both the “money-changers,” represented by downtown St. Paul, and “Caesar,” as represented in the Minnesota State Capitol just blocks away. In 2009, it was designated the National Shrine of the Apostle Paul.

In a 1988 biography of Archbishop Ireland, historian and archdiocesan priest Father Marvin O’Connell wrote that the cathedral and the co-cathedral, the Basilica of St. Mary, were “permanent statements in stone, more eloquent than all his [Archbishop Ireland’s] innumerable speeches combined, which proclaimed that the Catholics had indeed arrived, had put down their roots, and had assumed their rightful place in the American secular city.”

Social justice action has long been a hallmark of the archdiocese. A line of priests and laity have followed the lead of Msgr. John A. Ryan, best known for advocating in the 1930s for the rights of workers that today are taken for granted, such as the right to organize, the eight-hour workday and the minimum wage. Msgr. Francis Gilligan is among the most notable and memorable for leading labor schools and combating racially motivated segregation policies in the Twin Cities.

A Minnesota laymen, Ronald Krietemeyer, was the principal author of the U.S. Bishops’ 1986 pastoral letter on the Church’s social teaching, “Economic Justice for All.” Following in his footsteps, St. Paul-raised John Carr was, for a quarter century, the lead agent and spokesman for international and domestic social justice at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Out of the fertile soil of the archdiocesan Urban Affairs committee in the last century came an organization named Westminster Corporation bent on improving affordable housing in the area. Now known as CommonBond Communities, the Church-established spin-off over the past 40 years has become the Midwest’s largest nonprofit provider of affordable housing. CommonBond develops housing, manages property and offers support services to families, seniors and people with disabilities across the three-state region.

A native son who was ordained a priest of the archdiocese and went on to become its archbishop and a leader on the national scene was John Roach, the son of a Prior Lake banker.

Elected president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1980, Archbishop Roach led his fellow bishops during a time when they discussed, developed and spoke out on two major issues of the day, decrying nuclear arms and calling for economic justice.

Asked by a reporter how he would describe the ideological approach prevalent in the archdiocese under his leadership, the archbishop responded, “I don’t know if we’re liberal or conservative, but we move.”

Evidence is everywhere in the archdiocese:

  • In response to the women’s movement of the last century, the Commission on Women was created.
  • Teresa Mardenborough and Sister of St. Joseph of Carondolet Sharon Howell led the Commission for Black Catholics.
  • Permanent deacons were trained and ordained as early as 1976, following the Second Vatican Council’s restoration of the permanent diaconate.
  • A covenant between Catholics and Lutherans guides collaboration between the area’s two largest faith traditions.
  • Catholic lay people in the archdiocese have been on the forefront of the pro-life movement, both in the state through Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life and across the nation. Minneapolis’ Mary Ann Kuharski is the leader of “Prolife Across America,” also known as “the billboard people” for its positive messages on outdoor advertising about babies in the womb.
  • And Catholic Charities in the archdiocese continues to offer assistance to the most needy in the community, sheltering the homeless and offering services to help people have another chance to succeed in life, among a variety of other programs for pregnant women, children and families.

In 2016, the archdiocese comprises 12 counties surrounding the Twin Cities and is the 22nd largest Catholic diocese in the country with an estimated 850,000 Catholics. Once a frontier diocese, it is noted for being on the frontier of lay ministry and as a hub of post-Vatican II liturgical music.

St. Paul’s Outreach began in the archdiocese to take on the challenge of evangelizing college students, and has now spread to Arizona, Florida, Kansas, New Jersey, Ohio and Texas. Meanwhile, West St. Paul-based NET Ministries sends evangelization teams across the country to hold retreats for more than 80,000 young people each year.

In 1993, the University of St. Thomas launched the world’s first Catholic Studies program, which became a model for similar interdisciplinary programs across the country.

Continuing education and faith formation is available for adults through the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul.

The Catholic population in the region has been bolstered of late by the arrival — in great numbers — of Latino, Asian and African immigrants, enriching local parishes through their cultural traditions.

During the last years of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st, local cases of sexual abuse of minors by clergy came to light. Anticipated remuneration to victims of abuse led the archdiocese to declare bankruptcy in January 2015 so that the assets of the local Church could be shared equitably.

In a move Church experts called unprecedented, Archbishop John Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché resigned their positions in the archdiocese on June 15, 2015, citing the need for the archdiocese to move forward under new leadership. Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Bernard Hebda apostolic administrator of the archdiocese. Already coadjutor archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, he was in line to succeed Archbishop John Myers.

In his caretaker position for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Archbishop Hebda held 10 listening sessions to be able to offer the Holy See an idea of the attributes the clergy and the faithful hoped the next archbishop would have.

According to a representative of the papal nuncio to the United States, who attended some of the sessions, the broad request for the laity’s input on a new archbishop was unprecedented.

Whether or not that input was a factor, in a surprising appointment, Pope Francis named Archbishop Hebda to stay on as the permanent archbishop, which led to his installation as the ninth archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis May 13, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima.

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