Building a house of worship...

Wednesday, April 22, 2020/Categories: History

The first church, built in 1859, was a wood frame building measuring 12 by 25 feet. Having been outgrown, it was replaced in 1864 with a building 18 by 35 feet. By 1880 St. Mary's Parish had grown to 60 families and so a third church, measuring 40 by 90 feet, was constructed. The Seneca newspaper on January 16, 1880 said: "messrs. Pat Byrne, Michael Rogers and John Koch were in town Wednesday soliciting aid for a new Catholic church on the Wild Cat. It is to cost $3000 and will be done by August 15."

By 1889 the parish had increased to 109 families. After much debate, it was decided to build a fourth church large enough for all future needs. Fr. Pirmin Koumly, O.S.B., was the priest during the planning of this church. In the fall of 1891 the foundation was laid, "wide enough for a team of horses and eleven feet deep." A small basement was also built for a chapel where weekday Masses were to be said during the winter months. Fr. Pirmin felt unequal to the task of constructing the church as asked to be removed. He was replaced on July 6, 1891 by Fr. Herman Mengwasser, O.S.B., a many of many talents, who pitched in and worked along with the parishioners in the construction. Soon all the streets were piled high with limestone rocks leaving only room for the horses and wagons to pass through, as the parishioners hauled native limestone from the Hurley and Schneider quarries three miles north of town, "so many loads per family". There are 3,400 perches of stone masonry above the water table (the level of white limestone at the front door level) and about 1,200 cords of rock in the entire structure." (from Seneca Courier-Democrat, Nov. 23, 1894.)

The cornerstone was laid on April 30, 1893. On August 11, 1893. The Seneca Courier-Democrat carried this news item: "The immense church structure at St. Benedict is up now to about three feet above the windows, or in other words 32 feet high. It puts on an imposing appearance. Mr. (Bill) Dougherty, the contractor, is taking pride in his work and will see to it that the building is the best constructed in the county."

Although it is commonly said that the parishioners themselves did the masonry work, the Courier-Democrat, Dec. 1, 1893 said: "The new church is looming up in great shape. The mason work is completed and the carpenters are busy, putting on the shingles . . The St. Benedict boom is quieting down, for the reason that the stone masons, about 200 in number, have left." A young carpenter from St. Benedict, did the carpentry work and made the pews. The pulpit was a gift from Frank Drier and cost $400. By the time of the dedication only a few of the new pews were in position, and the statues of the four evangelists were expected from Munich soon.

St. Mary's Church, St. Benedict, KS, has been called "beautiful, absolutely fantastic", "a gallery of art", "equal to the churches in Europe", "something you would expect to find in a large city and not hidden away in this valley", "A tribute to the faith of the Catholic immigrants." One hundred years after its construction, St. Mary's Church is still a treasurer that amazes the traveler who happens upon it.

Because of its historical, cultural, artistic, and religious significance, St. Mary's Church was listed on the Kansas Register of Historic Places in 1977 and on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

The church is located in the Wildcat Creek valley, Nemaha County, KS, one mile west and three and a half miles north on Kansas Hwy 178.


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