History of St. Mary Parish
Over the past 151 years, the faith community of St. Mary has grown and matured through joy, pain, and their commitment to Jesus Christ. This commitment is what first gathered people in 1850 in each others' homes and it is still what gathers them in our church today. Throughout this time, there have been many challenges and countless blessings for the people of DeKalb St. Mary Parish.
As early as 1851, the 30 or so families in the DeKalb area would gather for Mass in their homes or in the town hall. When weather permitted, the people would meet in a nearby grove of trees. These Masses were celebrated by the priests of the Cathedral in Chicago and later by Fr. Patrick O'Dwyer, from St. Patrick in St. Charles. As the number of Catholics grew, so too did the need for a parish church. Under the leadership of the first pastor, Fr. John Murray, appointed in 1861, the task of building a church had begun. With much hard work and sacrifice, the first wooden structure was completed on the corner of Fourth and Pine Streets in the fall of 1861. When Fr. Murray died in 1865, he was buried under the floor of the church in DeKalb, which he had served for the last four years of his life.
As the city of DeKalb grew, so did the parish. Under the leadership of Father C. Walsh (1865-1867), Father R.J. Scott (1867-1870), and Father L. Dunne (1870-1877), St. Mary Church continued to foster the spiritual needs of the people. Bishop Foley of Chicago purchased land from Mr. & Mrs. Rufus Hopkins in 1874 for the use of St. Mary Catholic Church, which later became the St. Mary Cemetery. This plot of land is still used today. The parish community continues to gather in the cemetery for the inspiring Memorial Day outdoor Mass.
In 1894, Father P.J. O'Connor became pastor and it was under his leadership that a bigger church, with room for 600 worshippers, was to be built. In the Spring of 1899, the foundation was begun, but it would be the responsibility of the next pastor to complete the project. Fr. James Solon (1899-1940) completed the church in 1901. St. Mary families who had sacrificed and labored so long, joined with Bishop Muldoon and Fr. Solon, on Sunday afternoon, October 9, 1901, in celebrating the Dedication Mass of Thanksgiving in their newly built church. The church, which is still used today, stood as a gem of beauty with its strong Gothic structure covered with blue Bedford stone and 24 magnificent stained glass windows which were imported from Germany. All of the windows in the church today are original except the Rose window above the altar. This window was destroyed in the 1973 fire and is a duplicate. Fr. Solon's building project was just beginning. In 1904, a rectory was built west of the church. It was built of the same blue Bedford stone matching the church, rock-faced, and hand-hewn. In 1908, the Diocese of Rockford was officially established by His Holiness Pope Pius X, and the Right Reverend Peter James Muldoon was appointed first Bishop. Until this time, St. Mary Parish had been a part of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Construction on the new St. Mary School began in 1911. In 1913, the school opened with 90 students and an inaugural graduating class in 1914 of 12 students. The parish hall adjoining the school was a masterpiece of construction, with an exterior of reinforced concrete covered by a veneer of vitrified brick. The woodwork is entirely of mahogany with delicate scroll work. This building is used today, along with the new wings of the school, as the Parish Ministry Center. A large portion of this building, as well as one-third of the cost of the construction of St. Mary Hospital, began in 1921 near the intersection of First and North (now Fisk) Streets, and was the personal contribution of Fr. Solon. On October 19, 1922, St. Mary Hospital was opened to the public. In 1930, pastor James Solon was given the title and honors of Monsignor by His Holiness Pope Pius XI. After almost 41 years of service to St. Mary, Msgr. James Solon died September 25, 1940.
After the death of Msgr. Solon, Fr. Charles Quinn (1940-1955) became pastor. During his years at St. Mary, Father purchased land in 1944, that almost doubled the size of the cemetery. He purchased a new house for use as a convent across the street from the church in 1949, and built the first floor of the new wing onto the original school in 1954. This added eight classrooms and modern facilities for the students and teachers, now numbering more than 500. Fr. Hubert McGinn (1955-1957) was appointed administrator of St. Mary and began to study the need to expand the school again. The second story of the new wing would be completed in 1957, under the new pastor Fr. Vincent Cottam (1957-1962). Also, the church would undergo a painting and refurbishing of the sanctuary in 1958. Red carpeting was installed in the sanctuary. A new altar and baldquin replaced the original Gothic altar. Many of the ornate statues and oil paintings that covered several of the walls of the church were removed. It was at this time that the crucifix and tabernacle, still in use today, were donated to the parish.
Over the next several years, the next pastor, Fr. Clement Caine (1962-1967) would see many changes to St. Mary. In 1965, the school made the decision to close the seventh and eighth grades, not to be reestablished until 1986. Also, that same year, St. Mary Hospital closed its doors after more than forty years of service due to rising maintenance and staffing costs, and a new rectory and convent were constructed. The convent, which now houses the Parish Administrative Offices, was built on the back part of the parking lot next to the school. The moving of the convent opened the lot across the street from the church making available parking spaces by 1968.
Fr. Francis Bonnike (1967-1970) led the parish community through the Renewal in the Church suggested by the Second Vatican Council. Sweeping changes took place in church administration, in the Liturgy, and in the role of the laity in church communities. A Parish Council was formed and a constitution was adopted, which entrusted to the Council a share in all of the important decisions formerly made by the pastor alone. Along with this change in structure came a broader view of church mission, and a response of a greater number of parishioners to become involved in parish life. Fr. Bonnike remained pastor until he resigned his position to become President of the National Federation of Priest's Councils.
In July 1970, Fr. Harold Nilges (1970-1983) became pastor and continued the physical growth of the parish. Fr. Nilges had been in DeKalb from 1953-1957, as associate pastor. In 1970, Fr. Nilges was elected dean of the newly established DeKalb Deanery of the Rockford Diocese. In 1971, the older wing of the parish school was completely remodeled to serve as a parish center. On November 23, 1973, a fire, set by an arsonist, would consume the sanctuary of the church and all but the new pipe organ was detroyed. Over the next eight months, Mass was celebrated in the school gym. Plans were made to rebuild the church. Several improvements were discussed and construction was completed on July 6, 1974. This reconstruction included the new west entrance, a multipurpose room, and new washrooms. The newly renovated St. Mary Church was rededicated and blessed on the 75th Anniversary of the original construction of the church. Restoration of the organ was completed in November 1977.
Fr. William Schwartz (1983-1995) initiated the Branches Program, for young men discerning their call to the priesthood. It was under Fr. Schwartz's leadership that the full eight grades were re-established to the school by the 1986-87 school year. The church also underwent renovation to its current status in 1989. During Fr. Schwartz's tenure, the school continued to grow and in order to make more classroom space, the parish offices moved from the convent to the rectory, and a private home was purchased on Fisk Avenue to serve as the rectory. However, this solution would prove to be only a temporary fix. To accommodate the growing number of students, the parish purchased the former Notre Dame School on Gurler Road in 1994. With the help of parishioners, the cleaning and renovation of the school was begun.
Fr. Karl Ganss (1995-2003) lead the parish into the new millennium. In 1996, the first classes were held in the newly remodeled school at the Gurler Road campus. The parish offices returned to the former convent and Father moved back to the rectory. The house on Fisk Avenue was sold. In October 2001, the parish celebrated the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the new church.
Fr. Kenneth Anderson (2003-Present) is the current pastor. Under his leadership, traditions of meaningful worship and spiritual formation continues. Currently, there are 1,360 families registered in the parish with approximately 240 students enrolled at the school. Approximately 190 students attend the Elementary and High School Religious Education programs. The parish is enriched with many committees and organizations, which help to meet the spiritual and social needs of the community as we continue to grow into Holy People of God.