St. Mary’s Parish of Remsen has Luxembourger Roots
The settlement of Catholics in the area of Remsen took place during the great era of immigration in America during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Specifically, St. Mary’s Parish took its character largely from the contingent of immigrants from the small European country of Luxembourg, and from Germany and Alsace.
A German priest, Father Herman Meis, arrived as the first resident pastor at St. Joseph Parish of Le Mars in 1875. Father Meis orchestrated the expansion of the Church along the railroad lines between Le Mars and Storm Lake. Father Meis served the first Catholics of the Remsen area from the time of their local organization in 1881 and he oversaw the building of St. Mary's first church, completed in 1884.
The first St. Mary’s Church in Remsen was, like almost all of the first churches in northwest Iowa, a modest wooden structure. On June 13, 1885 the first resident pastor was due to arrive when tornadoes moved through Plymouth and Cherokee counties, destroying three Catholic churches and damaging two others. St. Mary’s Church was a total loss. When Father Frank Schulte arrived to take up his duties in late 1885 the people were already nearing completion of the second church.
Father Schulte started the first Catholic school in Remsen before the town was incorporated, in the fall of 1887. The first teacher was a layman, Herman Anthe. In 1888 the first school building was erected and soon after the Franciscan sisters of Dubuque arrived to teach. A large part of their work was enculturation of the children; thus, German was spoken in the mornings and English in the afternoons. By the turn of the century St. Mary’s Parish had grown considerably and included over 200 families.
St. Mary’s Parish came of age about the same time that the Diocese of Sioux City was erected from within the Archdiocese of Dubuque in 1902. In that year the school started to take its modern form when Sister Petronilla Wieneke incorporated high school classes. Construction of the present church began in 1902 with Guido Beck of Dubuque as architect. On April 21, 1903 Bishop Philip Garrigan presided at the laying of the cornerstone of the new St. Mary’s Church. Amazingly, the first Mass was held in the church just over a year later. A tubular pneumatic organ, built by William Schuelke of Milwaukee and the first of its kind built in the state of Iowa, was transferred to the new church from the old. The partially unfurnished brick church, well on its way to becoming one of the finest in Iowa, was dedicated on September 9, 1904. This was the day after the Cathedral of the Epiphany was dedicated in Sioux City and Bishop Garrigan sent Bishop James Schwebach of LaCrosse, Wisconsin to dedicate the church in his place. Bishop Schwebach was the only Luxembourg-born priest in America to become a bishop.
A new school building was erected on the church block in 1910. The beauty of the church grounds was enhanced in 1916 when a grotto was built in thanksgiving to Our Lady of Lourdes after the miraculous healing of parishioner Helen Ahmann during a pilgrimage to France. The modern rectory was built in 1936.
A substantial brick convent was erected in 1924, replacing the original, built in 1896. As many as 24 Franciscan sisters served in St. Mary’s parish and schools at one time. The number of students, including boarders, steadily increased over the years. By the 1950s the school had overflowed into the upper floor of the convent. Beginning in 1952, during the years of parochial high school consolidation in the diocese, the present St. Mary’s High School was built. Due to the dedication and work of the Franciscans, the priests, and parishioners, St. Mary’s is one of only four of the original parish-based Catholic high schools to survive to the present-day in the diocese. The school system includes St. Catherine’s School of Oyens. The Sisters of St. Francis no longer teach in the system but their legacy remains strong.
St. Mary’s Parish has yielded 54 religious vocations; 15 priests, 38 sisters and one deacon. The congregation currently consists of about 700 households of people from many ethnic backgrounds.
A full history of the parish is available. We Are Called: A History of St. Mary's Parish, Remsen, Iowa is a 256-page, 8.5 by 11 inch paperback book with color cover and black and white internal photos. It was authored by Rick Roder on the occassion of the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the church. To purchase a copy send $30 to Rick Roder/PO Box 2/Remsen IA 51050, or pay via PayPal to