By John Brassard, Jr.
When I think back on it, it seems that I have spent an incredible amount of time in the entryway of St. Joseph Catholic Church in DeWitt. When my children were small, they would almost always get tired at some point during the Mass. They would let me know — along with the entire congregation — that they were tired by wailing as loudly as humanly possible. So, I would gather them up and take them out to the entryway to calm them down. Sometimes this was a short process, and sometimes not.
At some point, I noticed a stone in the entryway dedicated to “…The Memory of Rev. P.J. Maher.” I have read and reread that stone over the years, and always wondered who he was. Now I know. In 1879, the first permanent Catholic church in DeWitt, St. Simon’s, burnt down. It was quickly determined to build a new church to replace the lost one. Construction began and in 1880 and by 1881 the new St. Joseph’s was christened and ready for its eager congregation. That same year, Fr. Maher became one of the first long-term pastors there.
P.J. Maher was born in Ireland in the late 1840s. He attended seminary school at St. John’s College in Waterford, Ireland, near where he was born. After finishing his studies, he immigrated to the United States and was ordained into the priesthood in 1870 in Dubuque, Iowa. That same year, he was sent to his first pastoral position in Anamosa, Iowa.
The parish priest — then and now — is a busy guy. First off, he celebrates Mass every day. In addition to this, he presides over weddings, funerals, and baptisms. He hears confessions, visits the sick, and gives general and specific spiritual advice to his parishioners. These are just some of the duties and responsibilities that Fr. Maher would have had. In addition to ministering in Anamosa, he also served the needs of a rural area nearby. Fr. Maher embraced his role and served with enthusiasm, according to historical reports.
For a while, he rented places to live but eventually built a permanent priest’s residence in Anamosa. Fr. Maher went on to build a church close to the nearby town of Prairieburg. To accommodate his growing congregation, he was also responsible for construction of a newer and bigger church in Anamosa. Work began in 1875 and the church was finished in 1880. A year after that, Fr. Maher was transferred to DeWitt to serve as pastor of St. Joseph’s.
He served there for about 23 years, performed all of his priestly duties and was also involved with the parochial school associated with the church. In April 1904, Fr. Maher left for Chicago to receive treatment at a Catholic hospital. He died Oct. 3 of that year at age 57. His remains were returned to DeWitt and he was buried at St. Joseph’s Cemetery a few days later, beloved by many.
So, if you happen to be at St. Joe’s in DeWitt, don’t forget to look at the stone dedicated to P.J. Maher. Give him a thought, or even say a little prayer. After all, he would have for you.
(John Brassard, Jr., is a member of St. Joseph Parish in DeWitt.)