Thinking of Greene County’s old country churches, like St. Mary’s, north of Jamaica

By ROGER AEGERTER

JEFFERSON, Iowa, Feb. 15, 2020 — Many roads in Greene County will take you past a church or two, or the ghost of a congregation from years past. Most of these churches have some written history from their origins.

Some churches may have been formed by the very first settlers in the area. The earliest rural church was around 1880 in Bristol Township, northwest of Jefferson. There were several more that met in schools or homes. Earlier churches were established in several towns in the county around 1863-1872.

Roger Aegerter Profile PictureIn 1896, there were 20 country churches in Greene County. The Methodists at this time had a church in every Greene County town except Farlin, which had Christian and Baptist churches. Most of these churches have been gone for many years.

Greene County does have a country church on the National Register of Historic Places, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church west of Churdan. St. Patrick’s does not have regular services but is used for special occasions.

Another of the interesting past churches in Greene County was St. Mary’s Catholic Church, two miles north of Jamaica on County Road P30 and west on 330th Avenue, in section 26 of Franklin Township. Like many country churches, St. Mary’s had its own cemetery. St. Mary’s originated in 1881 when the Tighe family deeded five acres of their homestead to Bishop John Hennessey, of the Catholic Diocese of Dubuque, to be used as a cemetery. The next step was raising funds for a church to be built on the cemetery grounds.

Early in 1882, the first load of lumber came from Rippey. Late in 1882, the first mass was said by Father Michael Joseph Quirk, and the church was totally finished a year later. Father Quirk was assigned to Grand Junction and came by train to Rippey where he was met by members of St. Mary’s and transported with a team and wagon to the church over roads that by today’s standards would be impassable.

At this time Father Quirk was the priest assigned to all of Greene County, all of Boone County and part of Calhoun County. He served four years.

St. Mary’s was dedicated Sept. 8, 1890. Priests from Cherokee and Perry officiated and a choir from Lohrville provided music. At the time of the dedication, there were 34 families that were active members at St. Mary’s. In the following years, a priest out of Jefferson had mass once every three weeks. The priest referred to St. Mary’s at this time as “Little Ireland.”

This statue of Mary stands on the spot where St. Mary’s Catholic Church stood. And note the etching of the church in the base of the statue.  The cemetery is now operated by the Franklin Township Board of Trustees. (Photos by Roger Aegerter)

Within a few years a new parish as established in the town of Jamaica, and St. Mary’s lost about half of its members.

From 1906 through 1954, St. Mary’s was administered as a part of parishes in Perry, Jefferson, Coon Rapids and Scranton. St. Mary’s closed in the fall of 1954. Most families became part of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Jefferson, and some families attended Jamaica. The church was torn down soon after.

Country churches had many memories, weddings, funerals, first communions, box socials, baptisms, Sunday School and Christmas programs. In many cases the church was the center of activity for the rural community. Midnight mass at St. Mary’s, with an “Aladdin Lamp” hanging from the ceiling, made the church seem typical, and yet special, at the same time.

A white marble memorial was erected in St. Mary’s Cemetery in May, 2005, in remembrance of the Ireland immigrant founders. The entrance arch to the cemetery was restored and installed in October, 2007.

This story and historical events could be told about numerous rural churches in Iowa and around the country. The 2011 book “Heritage of Greene County Iowa” has many of these country churches’ stories and is the source of some of my information here. Also, Madeline Garrity, of Cooper, provided information on St. Mary’s, or as she may have called it in the past, “Little Ireland.”

You can comment on this column in the space below here, or you can write directly to the author by email at roger.aegerter@gmail.com. The author is executive director of the Greene County Historical Society.

 

The top of the altar from old St. Mary’s Catholic Church is now in the Greene County Historical Museum in Jefferson, a donation by Madeline Garrity, of Cooper.

 

 

A memorial to the Irish immigrant families that were the founders of St. Mary’s Catholic Church and Cemetery.
Entrance to St. Mary’s Cemetery, two miles north and just west of Jamaica. The cemetery is also where the church stood.
Looking to the east from St. Mary’s Cemetery.

 

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