Lyons was founded in 1835 by Elijah Buell.
Just 13 years later, the Catholic parish of St. Irenaeus was organized by Father Cyril Jean, a French priest sent to Lyons by Bishop Matthew Loras who also presided at the first Mass in 1837. The first wood-frame church was near where the Odeon stood (1848-1850s). The first schools and churches in any town were small wood structures, designed to serve just until inhabitants could erect larger more elaborate buildings. That was a high priority for pioneers.
Streets and businesses were important to a new town, but churches and schools were equally essential. There was a small church on the southeast corner of the present lot and then another 1860-64 to the north of the present one.
St. Irenaeus’ early parishioners eventually constructed a permanent edifice of which they could be proud. They selected a northern promontory site for the church, over-looking the majestic Mississippi River. It was primarily Irish and German immigrants who first settled Lyons…(so-named by Buell after a town in southern France). The cornerstone was laid May 1, 1864, as the Civil War raged.
Instructions to build this Gothic cathedral were given by the same man who laid its cornerstone, Dubuque’s Bishop Smythe. He wanted it modeled after the beautiful cathedral in Lyons, France (pronounced Lay-own). It is a marvel that the high ceilings were supported by a buttress system instead of pillars.
A short time later, the German parishioners decided to establish their own congregation. Were language differences the reason, or differing personalities? Or, did they simply wish to have their “own” church.
At any rate, the German contingent bought an 1861 former Presbyterian church building on Pershing which they used until St. Boniface was built in 1908. Sermons there were preached in German until WWI, and their church school taught in that language until 1924.