DANVILLE — People’s genuine love for the faith and the parish has kept St. Paul’s Catholic Church vibrant for 100 years, its pastor says.
“There’s a real balance to the people that makes it easy to work with them,” the Rev. Greg Nelson said. “They’re very rooted in the values of the faith and the community, and that has helped the parish survive so well.”
The parish was founded in 1910, and construction of the building at Voorhees and Walnut streets began in 1912. The Spanish mission-style church was formally dedicated on May 7, 1913.
To celebrate, there will be a Mass at 10:30 a.m. Sunday with Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, Diocese of Peoria, as well as former pastors of St. Paul’s and priests from the region.
At 1 p.m., there will be a reservation-only dinner and program at the Beef House near Covington, Ind., where people may view contents of a time capsule buried in 1988, and other historical items.
The time capsule included a 1988 photo directory of the church, a cookbook, old bulletins and programs from the 75th anniversary and a student-parent handbook. The original items were water-damaged, but copies will be on view.
The parish intends to bury a time capsule for the centennial, Nelson said.
Nelson, who has been pastor eight years, said of the centennial, “It’s exciting to be a part of it. It’s going to be a joyful event to celebrate with the parishioners.”
Kent Nelson, chairman of the centennial committee, agreed, saying, “We’re just excited. To hear the bishop preach is something enjoyable (to experience).”
Kent has been a member of St. Paul’s all of his life; he attended the grade school and graduated from Schlarman High School in 1994. He now teaches computers and business at Schlarman Academy.
As for the parish’s longevity, he attributes it to a caring community of Catholics. He has attended Mass at larger churches, he said, where “you’re just a face in the crowd.”
At St. Paul’s, he said, “Everybody cares for one another. From childhood through old age, there is somebody there for you.”
He also noted that the pastor is younger than many priests and in touch with the approximately 750 families.
Reflecting on the parish’s long history, the Rev. Nelson praised the parishioners for their involvement.
“There’s a real spirit of volunteerism in the parish,” he said. “The parishioners are extremely generous with their time, interests and money. They’re always willing to step forward when there’s a need.”
That was evident when the church went through a two-year redecoration, completing it in 2009 — in time for the centennial of its founding in 2010.
The renovation included a new design for the sanctuary back wall, floor and railing; refinished Stations of the Cross, as well as extensive new trim work and improvements in sound and lighting. Former parishioner Ralph Davis donated the 14-foot cross as a memorial to his wife, and Trigard Bronze executed the new Pope John Paul II Stations of the Cross designed by John Sherman from the University of Notre Dame.
The vision and craftsmanship of James and Pat Sheehan were integral to the renovation, Nelson said.
St. Paul’s history
In 1910, Danville had a thriving Catholic community, represented by St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s parishes. As Danville grew northward, the Rev. Francis O’Reilly at St. Patrick’s thought it was time to plant a “missionary parish” in the northern part of town. The church would start as an “out mission” of St. Patrick’s.
The site of the current church was purchased on Oct. 3, 1911, and the parish of St. Paul’s was officially announced, serving Catholics north of the Big Four Railroad tracks.
Construction of the current church began in 1912. Architect Charles Lewis followed the request of O’Reilly and designed a mission-style church. The lead contractor was Joseph Schingel, and it was built at a cost of $18,000.
A formal dedication took place on May 7, 1913, with a sermon by the Rev. James H. McMahon from New York City. The ceremony also included former Speaker of the U.S. House Joseph G. Cannon.
The exterior of the church looked much as it does now, and the interior featured pews purchased from a local theater. Homemade kneeling rails were created, and seats had to be tilted back to accommodate kneeling. Church bells were never installed in the towers of the church due to neighborhood concerns over noise. The parish continued to serve as an out mission until June 1915.
St. Paul’s had 15 families in 1913, and grew to 28 families by 1915.
The Rev. Timothy F. Monohan was the first pastor, and served until December 1939. During his time, the parish grew to 125 families.
In 1930, St. Paul’s Community House was acquired at Voorhees and Vermilion, and served the parish until 1956, when it was demolished to make space for the parking lot.
The Rt. Rev. Msgr. W. J. Drummy (the field at Schlarman Academy was named after him) served as the second pastor until 1946. The current pews in the church were installed at the cost of $2,000, and soon the parish grew to 210 families.
In 1940, parishioners raised $1,800 to build a marble altar in memorial to Monohan, which now serves as a side altar. The marble is from Pietrasanta, Italy, and it came to America on the last boat to pass through the British blockade of Gibraltar in World War II.
The four hand-carved statues displayed on the side altars arrived in 1944, and were created by craftsmen who learned their trade in the famed wood carving center of Oberammergau, Bavaria.
The parish continued to grow from the 1950s into the 1970s, led by the Rev. Charles B. Motsett, who arrived after the parish had grown to 400 families. The parish boundaries now included Catholics living northwest of the intersection of the New York Central Railroad tracks and Bowman Avenue. He created St. Paul’s Elementary School and Schlarman High School. The church grew to 800 families during his time.
The school was opened in 1956 at a cost of $176,000 and offered grades one through five, with three Sisters of the Holy Cross and one lay teacher staffing the school the first year. In 1958 the Holy Cross sisters moved into the former home of Dr. Mason at 1316 N. Vermilion (later serving as a rectory from the 1990s on), which was remodeled to accommodate eight sisters. By 1959 the school expanded with a five-room addition and offered grades one through eight, with the first eighth-grade class graduating in 1960. A third addition was built in 1963, and the school grew to 600 students by 1965.
The 1970s and 1980s saw continued growth in the size of the parish and the introduction and expansion of various programs, including Parish Council begun by the Rev. John O’Toole.
The Rev. Thomas Shea oversaw an extensive renovation of the interior of the church in the early 1980s, which included a new main altar and a baptismal area at the entrance of the church. By the end of the 1980s, the parish had grown to almost 1,200 families.
In 1988, the Rev. Donald Henderson and the parish celebrated the 75th anniversary of the dedication of the church with several celebrations and a time capsule buried at the southwest corner of the church.
In the 1990s St. Paul’s benefited from several initiatives of the Rev. Douglas Hennessy, including various liturgical and study opportunities.
Into the third millennium, the parish welcomed both the Rev. Jeffrey Lawrence and the Rev. Gregory Nelson as pastors, and prepared for the celebration of its 100th anniversary.
Also, the schools were restructured into Schlarman Academy in order to assure that Catholic education remains vibrant well into the future.
FYI St. Paul's Catholic Church, 1303 N. Walnut, will have a Mass to celebrate its centennial at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, with Bishop Daniel Jenky officiating. The 8:30 a.m. Mass has been canceled, but the 6:30 a.m. Mass will be held as scheduled. Its website is www.stpauldanville.org.