This March 14, Prince of Peace parishioners will have the same experience that their forbearers did over a century ago.

Their ancestors were struck with awe as they experienced their magnificent new church home for the first time on Sunday, June 24, 1888. This will be felt by their modern-day counterparts as well.

St. Mary’s Church was built mostly by immigrants, and it took four long years to complete — from laying the cornerstone Aug. 17, 1884, to full completion of the massive church in 1888. The Rev. P.V. McLaughlin (pastor 1867-1879) had started the church when it was downtown and his brother E.J. McLaughlin (1879-1932) led the growth of the parish after his brother had died. The first pastor was buried beneath the altar of the first church, originally called Holy Family, on the southwest corner of Sixth Avenue South and Fourth Street (Roosevelt Building followed). Later, he was interred in the lower level of St. Mary’s before, finally, being reburied elsewhere.

In 1916, the second Rev. McLaughlin was elevated to Monsignor. At that time, the popular priest was given an electric automobile by his parishioners. He was the only priest known to wear a full beard, a fact attributed to chronic health problems caused by his years of suffering the cold damp winters of Ireland, Dubuque (where he was raised) and, of course, Clinton.

This didn’t deter him from using his fine voice to become one of the best speakers around. That tradition would become a St. Mary’s standard noted in Monsignor Ambrose Burke… down to its present-day priests, Frs. Anthony Herold and Thomas Hennon.

Those who remember Monsignor Thomas Galligan (1932-1956) recall that he was one of the few “fire and brimstone” orators in the Catholic Church of this area. He was known to shout about “going to hell” and to pound the pulpit with high emotion. All of these things made a great impression on the congregation, especially its youth.

On St. Mary’s 1888 dedication day, a parade and other events lasted several hours. Among those who marched that day were included three Irish Societies, a brass band, The Roman Catholic Total Abstinence Society, the Rt. Reverend John Hennessy of Dubuque and numerous priests. Their gathering began assembling at 2 p.m. for a three o’clock event. One thousand five-hundred people attended, and the party was adjourned at 5:30 p.m. Two hundred dollars was collected that day by ushers named Sheppard, Hall, Purcell, Koetter, Spaulding and Mooney. The cornerstone had been laid four years earlier, and it noted that Leo XIII was then Pope.

A feature article in the Clinton Herald was entitled “The Grand Edifice” and it is noteworthy that one of the builders, (later Realtor) J.Q. Jefferies, laid many of the 800,000 bricks which were ordered in 1884. By March 1888, however, only 3,800 bricks remained. The beautiful stained glass windows and other adornments were donated by families with names such as DeVine, Welsh, Rosenberger, Kennedy, Hayes, McCarthy, McFadden, Conroy, Dougherty, Redden, Quinn, John New, the Altar and Rosary Society and Ladies of the Sodality. Who were these people? How did they effect what we today have done? And, how did immigrants of such limited means pay for such a magnificent church?

When St. Mary’s parishioners climbed the Hill and built a church ascending toward heaven, they literally “came up in the world.” The little church downtown became inadequate; they needed a church for 1,000 people. The parish quickly had grown to 500 families with 600 schoolchildren, as immigrants glutted our city to get desirable jobs in the lumber industry, some of them then “moving up” to railroad work. This was during a time when all these Irish Catholics attended church every week and confession every other week. Many wouldn’t receive communion unless they’d recently confessed their sins. And, if they forgot a sin, they might go right back into the confessional. Lines were long; lectures and penances were harsh. Nevertheless, people were happy and seldom chafed under the hard realities of life.

That wave of Clinton immigrants came here in the 1850s and rapidly filled up the flatlands where Hy-Vee and ADM now rule the landscape. Many locals were Catholics who worked in the aforementioned factories and businesses. There was plenty of work and, as their lot in life improved, they moved into bigger and better homes. Slowly, they moved up Ninth Avenue hill and out Camanche Avenue, as trolley cars helped them navigate about their growing city.

People stayed in this “hilltop” neighborhood and seldom even went “downtown” because they had banks, grocers and bars right on Fourth Street. Many visited relatives in Chicago or went to ball games there via the many passenger trains that passed within blocks of their homes.

The first three pastors, remarkably, encompassed the years 1867-1956. Since then, they’ve been followed by Monsignor Burke, Reverends Leahy, Soens and Father Tom Doyle — the last St. Mary’s pastor before Father Ron Young was asked to create one parish under the name, Prince of Peace. Father Tony Herold is, of course, the present leader of this parish.

The new Prince of Peace Church can accommodate all the Catholics of Clinton, with space for 600 parishioners and overflow space in the atrium and generous side aisles for those “extra” folks who join in at Christmas and Easter.

This Sunday might also be a time in which estranged members can come back and enjoy fresh modern surroundings in a comfortable and non-judgmental atmosphere.

Gone are the numbers and nameplates designating where each family once had its rented pew.

Times have changed; modern people scarcely remember or have time to delve into the private lives of others. They simply endeavor to “love one another,” as we were taught to do.

A few old artifacts have been blended into the new facility. Pew ends from St. Mary’s have been refinished and hold the same place of honor in Prince of Peace. As Mass participants continue to run their hands over them, they’re touching spots that long family lines have rubbed. The ancient wooden confessionals were refinished and now serve as a backdrop to the altar. Many of the ornate, old candelabras and other items have been refurbished for continued use. One particularly fine piece is the original sanctuary lamp from St. Irenaeus, which is exhibited in its golden crown. It was brought from France by Father Frederic Cyrille Jean — a gift from the Bonaparte family.

St. Mary’s Church environs/ neighborhood are now very different from those of bygone years. Many early immigrants’ homes are gone… having been demolished or remodeled.

Apartments now line the brick streets where parishioners once raised large Catholic families. Yes, times do change.

A new church has been built, as some say, “way out” on the beltway.

Yet we know that, as time marches on (perhaps in another hundred years) it could be the center of town once more, and future parishioners may once again be thinking thoughts of change.

What might things be like then?

Note: The dedication of Prince of Peace Church will be Saturday, March 14, 2009.

Gary Herrity is the Clinton Herald’s historical columnist. His column appears on page 5A on Fridays.