St. Mary's Cathedral

Beginnings of a Parish


Hall County was established by an act of the legislature in 1855 and was organized in 1859. That same year, Patrick Moore and his brother, Richard, came from Iowa City, Iowa to be the first Catholic families in Hall County. They immediately sought help from the bishop in Omaha. However, it wasn't until 1861 that the first priest, Father Almire Fairmont, a Frenchman, came to visit the Hall County parishioners.

Father Fairmont celebrated the first Mass in the Moore's log cabin in the fall of that year, 3 miles west of what is now the town of Wood River. Moore's house was the home of the Rev. Anthony Moore, the first priest ordained from Hall County. About the same time that the Moores settled, the Windolph families, also Catholics, arrived in Grand Island.

Priests from Columbus or Omaha then came to the Grand Island and Wood River area once a year to confer the sacraments and celebrate Mass. In 1864, Father M. J. Ryan offered Mass once a month in homes and railroad section houses.

With the railroad coming to the county, the parishioners felt a church to be necessary. Under Father Ryan the first church was built in 1869 on land given by Union Pacific. The land was located at First and Elm streets, where the parish center now stands. Sadly, due to a windstorm, the church was destroyed before its dedication. This was a great shock to the young mission and its members. A second attempt to build a church was halted in 1873 by an economic depression.

On February 17, 1877, the members of the church began for the third time to rebuild, and were able to finish the construction begun earlier. The cornerstone was laid May 7, the building completed in July and dedicated in September of that year, attended by Father Ryan from Columbus as a mission. The building was a frame structure with a good brick foundation situated upon the site of the public library. The same year, Father P.J. Erlach was named the first resident pastor and the congregation numbered about 30 families.

Father Richard Phelan came on July 4, 1880 and found 52 families belonging to the congregation. Father Phelan served until his death from a stroke of paralysis on March 10, 1884. Father P. Lynch took care of the parish, which had been handled in the interim by Father Smith of O'Connor. Father Lynch remained in Grand Island until October 6, 1886, when he was transferred to the Wood River congregation, which had until then been a mission attached to Grand Island.

A Growing Parish

By the late 1880's, the growing Catholic population made a larger church necessary. Bishop James O'Connor send Father Wunibald Wolf to Grand Island with orders to build a new church. Construction began in 1888, Bishop O'Connor laid the cornerstone August 15 and the fully finished building was dedicated July 7, 1889 by the Vicar General, Father R. Schaffel, representing the Bishop.

The new church was build of brick and stone, was 44 by 119 feet, had two towers 104 feet high and cost about $20,000. This building would serve the parish until the construction of the present cathedral.

Father Wolf led this parish for thirty years until he retired in 1914 and Father A.W. Heimes took charge. The community was never more deeply touched than upon July 5, 1918, when Father Wolf passed away. The tribute to Father Wolf, with the record of his service to his people and this county was published in the paper.

A beautiful church is splendid evidence of faith, but that faith must be kept alive and progressive. A Catholic school was founded and on September 9, 1893, 120 children began instruction under the leadership of four Sisters of St. Joseph. By 1918, so many students attended St. Mary's School that the old school's capacity was exceeded and a new school was built in 1920.

On March 8, 1912, western Nebraska was made the Diocese of Kearney with the Most Rev. James A. Duffy as its first Bishop. However, on April 17, 1917, Pope Benedict XV added four additional counties to the diocese: Wheeler, Greeley, Howard and the part of Hall County north of the Platte River. Grand Island became the see city and the Bishop's residence was transferred in July of that year. With the headquarters of the diocese governing so much territory located here, Grand Island became an important center in Catholic affairs in Nebraska.

A Cathedral Parish

Because the old St. Mary's Church was deemed inadequate to serve as a cathedral, a new one would have to be built. Bishop James A. Duffy spent months in traveling to study building styles before deciding on Gothic architecture - noted for the pointed arch, the traceried window, buttresses, spires, pinnacles and internally, the ribbed-groined vault. Work was begun on the present cathedral church in 1926 and finished in 1928. Cardinal Patrick Hayes of New York City presided at the dedication ceremonies on July 5 in the same year.

Even with the new cathedral done, there were still problems of overcrowding. Though people laughed when it was first built and said that the cathedral would be too big, the numbers of families attending St. Mary's had grown to more than 800, while the capacity of the cathedral was 900 persons. In the spring of 1949, it was decided to form a new parish, Blessed Sacrament, on the north side of the city.

Considering the needs of the cathedral parish, two residences north of the school were purchased, giving the parish ownership of the entire block. In 1951, the present rectory was completed on the site of the former convent. The old rectory on First Street and the two residences to the east became the new convent. The present convent building was blessed by Bishop John. L. Paschang on September 3, 1967, the year that the diocese celebrated its 55th anniversary.

Grand Island Central Catholic High School was a joint project between St. Mary's and Blessed Sacrament parishes. Having the capacity of 700 students, Central Catholic was started in the fall of 1955 and was ready for use for the fall term of 1956. Besides the high school grades, this building housed the eighth grades from both St. Mary's and Blessed Sacrament parishes. Students from surrounding parishes were also enrolled at Central Catholic, with the largest number from St. Libory.

A Cathedral Parish

Because the old St. Mary's Church was deemed inadequate to serve as a cathedral, a new one would have to be built. Bishop James A. Duffy spent months in traveling to study building styles before deciding on Gothic architecture - noted for the pointed arch, the traceried window, buttresses, spires, pinnacles and internally, the ribbed-groined vault. Work was begun on the present cathedral church in 1926 and finished in 1928. Cardinal Patrick Hayes of New York City presided at the dedication ceremonies on July 5 in the same year.

Even with the new cathedral done, there were still problems of overcrowding. Though people laughed when it was first built and said that the cathedral would be too big, the numbers of families attending St. Mary's had grown to more than 800, while the capacity of the cathedral was 900 persons. In the spring of 1949, it was decided to form a new parish, Blessed Sacrament, on the north side of the city.

Considering the needs of the cathedral parish, two residences north of the school were purchased, giving the parish ownership of the entire block. In 1951, the present rectory was completed on the site of the former convent. The old rectory on First Street and the two residences to the east became the new convent. The present convent building was blessed by Bishop John. L. Paschang on September 3, 1967, the year that the diocese celebrated its 55th anniversary.

Grand Island Central Catholic High School was a joint project between St. Mary's and Blessed Sacrament parishes. Having the capacity of 700 students, Central Catholic was started in the fall of 1955 and was ready for use for the fall term of 1956. Besides the high school grades, this building housed the eighth grades from both St. Mary's and Blessed Sacrament parishes. Students from surrounding parishes were also enrolled at Central Catholic, with the largest number from St. Libory.

The Parish Blossoms

In the late 1950's, the cathedral was completely redecorated, retaining its beauty in its simplicity. Two copies of classic paintings of the Transfiguration and the Assumption of Mary were placed above the side altar alcoves, a new Bishop's throne was installed and wooden paneling was placed across the rear of the sanctuary.

In 1965, the old church, which had served as a gymnasium for St. Mary's School, was torn down and in 1973, St. Mary's School was closed in favor of Central Catholic High. In the same year, two new parishes were formed in Grand Island. St. Leo's was established in the southwest part of the city with former families from St. Mary's as the nucleus. Resurrection parish was established in the northwestern part of the city.

In 1976, a wheelchair ramp was constructed at the south side door of the cathefral and, due to the demise of the old furnace, new heating plants were installed in the cathedral and the school building. At that time central air conditioning was also added in the cathedral and the church was completely rewired.

A new honor was conferred on July 15, 1982, when the State Historic Preservation Office announced that St. Mary's Cathedral had been listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It was placed there because of its architecture—it is a late Gothic Revival style modeled after the Parisian cathedral La Sainte Chapelle—and the parish's importance in the establishment of the community.

The idea of getting the building in the Register came from a member of the congregation in 1979. At that time, they asked the state to sponsor their application to the National Historical Society. A change of administration and new rules in 1980 put a wrinkle in the plan for a time, but it was eventually ironed out.

The cathedral underwent exterior and interior refurbishing in 1985-86. Roof repairs with new gutters and downspouts were made. In those same years, the interior of the cathedral was completely redecorated, new carpeting installed under the pews and the old confessionals were remodeled to provide for face-to-face confessions. Repairs were also made on the convent building. All was in anticipation of November 22, 1987, on which date the Diocese of Grand Island celebrated its 75th anniversary.

In August of 2001, the old St. Mary's School was torn down to make room for a new social hall. When built, the hall will have classrooms, dining halls and a kitchen. It stands where the old St. Mary's once stood. The City of Grand Island closed a block of West Division Street and granted it to the Cathedral for a parking lot. The Cathedral had not, per se, had a parking lot in the past.

St. Mary's Cathedral continues to grow and change with the love and hard work of its devoted parishioners.