By Celine Klosterman
MOUNT PLEASANT – St. Alphonsus Parish is celebrating 150 years of serving Catholics as the only parish in Henry County.
The parish will highlight that heritage this Sunday, Nov. 4. Bishop Martin Amos will preside at Mass at 2 p.m. before a light supper and fellowship.
Some Catholics who will attend that celebration are descendants of Irish immigrants who fled famine and political discord before settling in the Mount Pleasant area in the mid-19th century. Those immigrants included Timothy Slattery, great-great grandfather of current parishioner Kathryn Ann Veith, who said her great-grandparents made their first Communion at home before the first church was built in 1862. Thomas Powers, great-grandfather of current parishioner Jerry Wells, laid brick on that building, Wells said.
Ireland native Father James Slattery was assigned to minister to the Catholic community in 1860. During his four years there he battled anti-Catholic prejudice, which parishioners would face for years to come, according to a historical account from St. Alphonsus.
But the parish grew despite obstacles. After the 1884 Plenary Council of Baltimore mandated every parish have a school, classes began taking place in the basement of St. Alphonsus Church. A school was built in 1891, and Sisters of Humility taught there until 1904.
By 1920 St. Alphonsus included 170 registered families. Around that time, a system of envelope contributions replaced pew rental as a source of parish income.
Ireland native Father John Manning came to St. Alphonsus in 1950, when the parish included 190 families and was growing.
“Fr. Manning was a wonderful priest,” said parishioner Dorothy McCormick. He presided at her son’s wedding in 1966, less than a week before the pastor died.
“He always said our social life should revolve around church life. The McCormicks have always done that with weddings, dinners and family reunions,” said Mc-Cormick, whose late husband Leo’s ancestors were among the parish’s earliest members.
In 1961 her family joined fellow parishioners in celebrating the dedication of a new school, which replaced an overcrowded older structure. Veith was in the first graduating class in the new building, which Wells helped build. A new convent was constructed, too.
But after the Second Vatican Council, Sisters of Mercy who’d taught at St. Alphonsus left, saying dwindling vocations meant they could no longer staff the school. The school closed, but the overcrowded public school district rented the building and renamed it Manning Elementary. Meanwhile, St. Alphonsus Parish converted the former convent into classrooms for religious education.
In 1975 the church basement was remodeled and renamed Loyola Hall in honor of Sister Loyola, who taught parishioners including Eleanor Long-field.
“She had a large influence on us,” Longfield recalled. “She always led us to be truthful and respectful in all things.”
In 1998 St. Alphonsus completed more building improvements: remodeling Manning Hall, removing an outdated office building and constructing a new gathering hall.
Eight years later, Bishop William Franklin dedicated a new, larger church that better accommodated the increasing number of parishioners.
In light of the expense of maintaining the former church, the parish council voted in 2011 to demolish the 149-year-old building.
Today, St. Alphonsus has about 360 families.
Longfield, who left Mount Pleasant after high school in 1958 and returned in 2002, said those families contribute to an open, welcoming atmosphere that she didn’t always feel at churches elsewhere.
“Everybody knows everyone just about,” Wells said. “If they don’t know you, they’re in the process of getting acquainted.”
“It’s always been a family at St. Alphonsus Church,” McCormick said. “We’re blessed with new faces and active parishioners, a lot of young people. We older parishioners have many good memories of the past, and we’re looking for the blessings to continue in future generations.”
Priests from St. Alphonsus
St. Alphonsus members who became priests include native parishioner Father Ed Fitzpatrick, director of the Newman Catholic Student Center in Iowa City, who was ordained in 1970. Father Paul Connolly, now pastor of St. Joseph’s in DeWitt and St. Anne’s in Welton, registered with St. Alphonsus in 1974 as a lay person before being ordained a priest in 1983.
According to parish history, other St. Alphonsus natives were Father Gilbert Watters, CSSR; Father Stanley Roche, OSB; and Bishop Leo Maher, who all are now deceased.