By Anne Marie Amacher
DAVENPORT — The oldest Catholic parish in the diocese and second-oldest in Iowa — St. Anthony’s in Davenport — celebrates its 175th anniversary this year. The original church, built in 1837, still stands on parish grounds in downtown Davenport.
According to parish historian Henri Chapdelaine, Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, an Italian Dominican missionary, came to the Davenport area in 1837 where he met up with the influential Antoine LeClaire whom he had met a year earlier. The first Mass in Davenport was offered in the LeClaire home.
LeClaire, a founder of Davenport, donated a square block where the first Catholic Church in Davenport would be built. Chapdelaine said a simple 25-foot by 40-foot two-story red brick building was constructed on the site. The church was on the upper level; the rectory and a second room were on the lower level. The building not only served as a rectory and church, but as a school, town hall and district court.
Fr. Mazzuchelli designed the church and also helped physically build it.
Father John Pelamourgues served as the first resident pastor beginning in 1839. In 1844 the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary arrived to teach at the school that Fr. Pelamourgues had been leading. That year, a 35-foot extension was added to the west side of the building. A new entrance wing and north wing were added later on.
By 1850 a larger church was needed. An 84-foot by 44-foot rectangular-shaped church was built of stone in 1853. Other buildings in “church square” had stone added to their exteriors. A new rectory was built in 1875. An addition to the church was needed by 1885, so two wings were built to the north and south for a new sanctuary and sacristy. When the work was completed in 1887, the church was in the shape of a cross. In the 1940s, a larger sacristy was added east of the south wing and other enhancements were made to the church, Chapdelaine said. In 2009, the rectory was torn town to make way for a new parish hall.
Dennis Flaherty, a St. Anthony’s parishioner for about 30 years and the parish’s former business manager, recalled stories he had heard over the years, some from various priests who served the parish.
Msgr. W.J. Bulger, who served from 1916-44, was the first priest to give food to the poor through the parish.
When Father Martin Manning arrived by train in Davenport in 1943, he walked to the church and tried to enter the rectory to begin his assignment as assistant pastor. Flaherty said the story goes that Fr. Manning knocked and knocked. Finally Msgr. Bulger yelled down to come in as he was already in bed. “I can’t. The door is locked. I can’t get in.” Msgr. Bulger finally let the new priest in.
Msgr. W. Robert Schmidt probably celebrated more Masses at the parish than any other priest who served there, Flaherty said. Although Msgr. Schmidt served as pastor for just eight years, he assisted the parish for around 30 years.
Flaherty got involved in ministries in the parish under Father James Conroy who served as pastor from 1986-98. “Father was taken aback by the crowd on Palm Sunday one year. He saw me and said, ‘Flaherty, you are going to be my lector today.’” Since then, Flaherty has also been serving as a eucharistic minister and an usher. He’s previously served as business manager, helped clean the church, take out the garbage and do odds and ends.
“I never had a bad experience working with any of the priests down there,” Flaherty said. “It’s a family.”
He likes how Father Apo Mpanda, the current pastor, gets personally involved in various activities at the parish. “He is very outgoing and warm.”
Flaherty said many wonderful people from St. Anthony’s get involved. They deliver food baskets in the coldest weather to people in need, donate time to solve problems with buildings or help out as needed.
As his position as business manager started to wind down, the new parish hall got underway. Building it required demolition of the old rectory, which was hard for many people.
“There were five major construction projects on that rectory over the years,” Flaherty said. “It didn’t look anything like the original.” It had many issues including the need for five furnaces to keep it warm. The rectory was hard to keep warm, he added.
Now in the former rectory’s place is the parish hall, which also houses some religious education classes. The original church bell is located on the lawn in front of the parish hall. On top of the brick house in which the bell hangs is a copper sculpture of a Sister of Charity, Chief Blackhawk, Fr. Mazzuchelli, Col. George Davenport, LeClaire and a child.
Since 1985, the parish has taken to heart the role of St. Anthony as the patron saint of the poor. Then-pastor Father Ken Martin began the Care and Share program that sets aside weekly parish contributions to the poor and needy. McAnthony Window, established by Fr. Conroy, continues to serve meals to the poor. The tradition of Thanksgiving and Christmas food baskets also continues.