By Gary Herrity Special to the Herald
The Clinton Herald
---- — 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.
It was at this time that the Franciscan nuns came to Boniface. The Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) nuns served St. Irenaeus. Some of the Germans stayed at Irenaeus, but the rural German farmers from such places as the Determan Settlement (west of town) were the mainstays of Boniface. It wasn’t uncommon to sometimes have ethnic churches; but, eventually, all would become Americans.
Today, many work at the museums and mingle at Prince of Peace, with little concern for historical origins.
Father Jean had been sent to Lyons, by Bishop Loras, of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, in 1851. He was pastor there until 1872. There was some type of falling-out then, and Father Jean wasn’t even buried in St. Irenaeus cemetery. He has a prominent stone in St. Boniface cemetery. Gossips say he was even buried going in a different direction, due to his alleged “papist” tendencies. Such mysterious problems or concerns were common in pioneer America, but have largely been resolved or forgotten, though one occasionally hears of some far-out bias.
Father Jean once took a trip back to his native France and brought back a replica of the crown of the King of France, presented to him by the Bonaparte family. It hung for years at St. Irenaeus as the sanctuary lamp. When Prince of Peace was built, it was transferred there, as were the original Stations of the Cross.
St. Irenaeus, the first permanent Catholic Church in Clinton, was begun in 1864 and completed in 1871. In later days, the Rev. Edward Jackson came to Lyons in 1933 and modernized the buildings in 1947. He became the head of the Clinton Deanery in the 1950s, after St. Mary’s Msgr. Galigan died. When St. Irenaeus was to be remodeled, it was found that the stone interior was in very bad shape.
Father Jackson made the decision to use a then new and lasting material called “PermaStone.” He had the interior of the church and rectory covered as the school had been done. The artificial stone is still holding up well today. At first, the Holy Name Sodality was in charge of raising the money to do the modernization work, but it was Leo McEleney who spear-headed its completion — which cost more than $45,000 — although “nobody ever knew how.” Ironically, this was the exact price of the original construction.
In 1906, under Father Comerford, the church’s interior was reversed so that the main thoroughfare, Second Street, with its trolley car line could be utilized and it would also eliminate the need for the many steps leading up from Roosevelt Street.
An anniversary Solemn High Mass was celebrated on Sunday, Nov. 28, 1948, with the Rev. Walter McEleney as celebrant; Deacon, Rev. F. Lollich; Sub-Deacon, Rev. Charles Shepler; Arch-Priest, Rev. E.F. Jackson; M. of C. Rev. W. Sondag; and the address by the Most Rev. Ralph L. Hayes, Bishop of Davenport. Some noted family names in 1948 were: Horst, Lollich, Soesbe, Ehrhart, Burke, McConohy, Klaes, Schoel, McDonnell, Sino, Waldorf, McCarthy, Spittler, Pape, Kenny, Dever, Cossman, Hilgendorf and Hannafan. The parish had a mixture of many nationalities.
St. Irenaeus was closed in 2010, due to consolidation of five parishes into Prince of Peace Church which became the sole parish/Catholic Church in Clinton. Fortunately, St. Irenaeus, the oldest Catholic Church in Clinton, was taken over by the Clinton County Historical Society.
Today, they use it as an assembly hall and program center with more plans for the future. This separate corporation, hopefully, ensures the long existence of this very important piece of Clinton history.
n Sources — Bob Soesbe, Jan Hansen, Clinton County Historical Society Museum: St. Irenaeus Parish Centennial Celebration, 1848-1948 (available for reading at Irenaeus, Boniface or CCHSM.) Look for a coming article/book by author, Mary Ellen Eckelberg.
Gary Herrity is the Clinton Herald’s historical columnist. His column appears in the Herald on Fridays.