The history of any church is intertwined with the history of the community in which it is located.
That is also true of our parish. Given the rich history of the city of Vandalia, it would be a grave oversight not to review the City’s history in the history of the parish.
The City of Vandalia is unique in that it was created by the State of Illinois. In March of 1819, the State Legislature, meeting in Kaskaskia, appointed six commissioners to pick out the site for a new capitol. The commissioners were given the direction to locate the site for the capitol along the banks of the Kaskaskia River and as near the third principal meridian as possible. That direction dictated that the capital would be near the present site of our city. The reason for this direction is not recorded. However, one plausible reason for this direction is that all of the land directly north of Vandalia was still claimed by Indian tribes in the spring of 1819. Most land in the state at that time was owned by the Federal government. The state of Illinois had petitioned the Federal government for a grant of four sections of land on which to locate state buildings and to finance the move to the new state capital. The proceeds from the sale of the excess land was used to finance the project. At that time, the Federal government would not transfer any land until the Indian claims had been extinguished. Therefore, the state could not locate the new capital any further north than this area in the spring of 1819. This is also the reason that the cities of Springfield, Decatur, Champaign and others in Central Illinois were founded after Vandalia. Although there were several individuals of the Catholic faith in Vandalia during its early years, there was not a sufficient number to establish a parish here until midway through the nineteenth century.
Through the efforts of Michael Lynch, a successful wagon maker, Father George Hamilton came to Vandalia on May 2, 1845 to celebrate the first mass in the city. The mass was celebrated in the upper east room of the Old State Capitol. It is said that people of every denomination poured into Vandalia for the ceremony. The town was filled with onlookers as well as devoted followers of the faith. Such a large crowd attended the mass that many could not gain entrance to the building. On that day, more that 55 persons received the sacrament of baptism.
Between the years 1845-1855, an itinerate priest celebrated mass once a month in Michael Lynch’s warehouse. This building was located on the north side of Gallatin Street between Sixth and Seventh Streets, Mr. Lynch is said to have owned this entire block. Prior to 1845, Fayette County Catholics had to travel to St. Louis to have their children baptized and to receive the sacraments.
Irish Catholics move to Illinois
The construction of the Illinois Central Railroad was the event that caused our parish to come into existence. In 1850, the State of Illinois received a grant of land totaling 2,595,000 acres to construct a railroad through the state. The main line of this railroad would pass through Vandalia. The contractors hired to construct the railroad needed a great number of workers and advertised in eastern cities where immigrants were likely to see the announcements. Workers were promised employment for two years at a rate of pay of $1.25 per day.
A large number of Irishmen responded and came to Illinois to build the railroad and brought with them their Catholic faith. About this time, Father Thomas Cusack came to Illinois to minister to needs of Catholics in the central and southern parts of the state. At this time, the southern half of Illinois was part of the Diocese of St. Louis. Father Cusack was originally from Kilmaian County Cavan, Ireland, and was ordained by Bishop Kenrick in St. Louis on August 15, 1842. In the list of missionaires kept in the archives in St. Louis, he is described at the beginning of 1854 as missionary, “in via ferrata vaporea”, the railroad apostle. In 1856, he was stationed in Decatur and from thence followed the men building the railroads, administering to their spiritual needs and striving to control their excesses. His means of conveyance was a white mule. His territory extended from Decatur to Cairo, north to south, and from Highland to Terre Haute, west to east. One source speaks of him: “he was a hard-working, painstaking priest. He was plainspoken and had no flattery for anyone. He made the youngsters know their catechism.”
First Church Constructed in 1855
Through the efforts of Father Cusack and Vandalia Catholics, notably Michael Lynch and John Kelly, the first church was constructed. The site for the church had been acquired on September 26, 1854. The deed for Lot 1 of Square 9 of the original town of Vandalia is shown to have been conveyed to Anthony O’Reagon, Bishop of Chicago, on that date. The deed was handwritten by capital period artist James Berry who served as Fayette County Clerk at the time. This location is at the northest corner of the intersection of Randolph and Eighth Streets. The first church was a frame structure constructed in 1855 and was named Mother of Dolors. A bell was later purchased and a belfry erected at the rear of the church. An organ loft was located on a platform in the southwest corner of the church where Mary Lynch, daughter of Michael Lynch, served as the first organist. A wooden cross, built by Thomas Higgins, stood at the altar. A rectory was also built next to the church. The house which now is located at 306 North 8th Street is the original rectory of the parish.
It is curious that the name “Mother of Dolors” was selected for the parish. Dolors means sorrows in Latin. Mother of Dolors is the patron saint of the Slavic people. She is their patron saint because of the sorrows that they have endured at the hands of their neighboring nations. This is according to information at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC. It is not sure when this designation was made. If it would date back to the founding of the parish, one might wonder why this name was selected when many of the original parishioners, as well as Father Cusack, were of Irish descent.
Important Events in the History of the Parish
Father Cusack organized the Altar Society.
Father Cusack was transferred from Vandalia. During his tenure at Vandalia, he baptized nearly 200 persons in his territory.
Father Michael Weiss was named pastor. He was also pastor of the congregations in Ramsey, Greenville, Oconee and Patoka.
Father Weiss repaired the church and rectory. In that year, a church bell was purchased and blessed by Bishop Baltes of Alton.
Father Weiss left and Franciscan Fathers of Teutopolis, Illinois took care of the parish and its missions until December 11, 1870.
The church received the authenticated Document of Incorporation by the act of the Legislature of the State of Illinois, passed March 8, 1869. The first Trustees selected by the bishop of Alton were: John Engert and John Carroll.
Steps were taken to repair the church, which had fallen into poor condition. A new cemetery was bought and named: “St. Joseph’s Cemetery”.
Father James Rensmann built a parochial school in which 34 children were enrolled. Sebastian Weiss taught at the school. Mr. Weiss received $40 per week and lodging at the church rectory. During this year, a new organ was also installed at a cost of $175.
The St. Patrick’s Society was organized. First officers were: President – John Engert, Vice-president – Patrick Heavy, Secretary – H.I. Witte, and Treasurerer – D. Cullety. This Society and the Altar Society contributed the funds for the upkeep of the school.
The parochial school was discontinued for reasons of poverty and inactivity of the societies.
The parish school was reopened and 38 children attended. Miss H. Seckinger was the teacher. Father Charles Geier was Pastor.
The parish school was closed and would not reopen.
A much needed third room was added to the rectory.
New sacristies to the church were built. The mission of Patoka was removed from the parish and became part of the new Belleville diocese.
The missions of Oconee and Greenville became separate parishes.
The Sacred Heart League was organized with 33 members. First officers were President – Miss Maggie Lynch and Vice-President – Miss Hattie O’Neill.
Lot 4 in Square 10 is acquired. This is the present location of the church at Seventh and St. Claire Streets.
The church at Randolph Street was destroyed by fire. Mass and divine services were held on the second floor of the Ferrin Building on Gallatin Street until a new church was constructed.
Father Bernard Lee appointed a committee to procure funds to construct a new church at Seventh and St. Claire. Those on the committee were Joseph Weiss, Dan Burtschi, Edmund LeDoux, James Kelly, John Phillips and Charles Oldfield. The new church was built and the cornerstone was laid on May 21, 1898. It was dedicated by Bishop Ryan of Alton. The main altar and the two side altars were carved by Father Joseph DeChene who was the pastor in Assumption. They were likely done several years after the construction of the church.
Father J.P. Moroney became pastor in June of 1898. He added a tower and basement to the new church building and built a rectory. A new heating system was installed in the church and rectory. The old church grounds and school on Randolph Street were sold.
The sactuary and two sacristies were added to the church. The cross in the cemetery was blessed by Bishop Ryan of Alton.
Ramsey ceased to be a mission of Vandalia.
The Holy Name Society was formed with Joseph Burtschi as President and Edmund LeDoux as Vice-President.
The Altar Society earned enough money to pour a cement floor in the basement of the church. This was done with the help of inmates from the Illinois State Penal Farm. The main altar was remodeled and improvements were made to the sanctuary and rectory.
On September 10th, Father Francis Gribbon became pastor of the parish. Many improvements were accomplished during Father Gribbon’s tenure as pastor. The Altar Society began using the basement for bingo. Through this means, money was earned to finish the basement. Through the generosity of Dan Burtschi, the Angelus bells were installed. A new pipe organ and new slate roof were also installed.The weight of this new roof caused the walls of the church to spread. Additional bracing was needed to maintain the integrity of the building. Steel rods were installed between the walls for additional support. These are concealed inside the wood beams in the ceiling of the church. The sisters of Teutopolis were engaged to teach religion to the children of the parish.
Ground was broken for a new rectory on September 19th. Leroy Taylor of Okaw Construction Company was the contractor. It was completed in April of 1968.
Father Gribbon celebrated his Golden Jubilee as a priest. A new heating and air conditioning system was installed and the church was rewired.
The church and basement were renovated. Glass doors were installed in the new church vestibule. On September 30, Father Charles Sellers was appointed administrator of the parish. During his tenure, the exterior of the church was tuckpointed, a new roof was installed on the church, classrooms were constructed in the rectory basement and many other improvements were made to parish property. The property on the northwest corner of Seventh and St. Claire Streets was acquired by the parish.
An apartment building stood on the property. The building was originally the residence of Governor Ewing during the period that Vandalia served as the state capital. Since the building was in very poor repair, the parish decided to demolish the building. It was hoped that the site would be used to construct a church hall at some time. Father Robert Porter was pastor at this time.
After a successful fund raising drive, construction began on a new Parish Center on September 15, 1993, which is the feast of Mother of Dolors. The Parish Center was designed with a large multi-purpose room, a spacious kitchen, storage space and entryway. It is the largest structure owned by the parish. Father Stephen Sotiroff was pastor, Dale Timmermann was chairman of the building committee, Don Hance from Mattoon was the architect and Swingler Construction from Effingham was the general contractor. The project was made possible financially because of the generous financial support of the parish. However, one parishioner in particular, Elwena Scarpaci, was very generous and without her support, the project probably would not have been possible.
Major improvements were made to the Church in this year. A new roof, louvers in the steeple, a new heating and air conditioning system, and a new bell ringing system were installed. The inside of the steeple was tuckpointed. During the year, severe termite damage was discovered in the supporting beams in the basement of the church. Architectural studies were begun to replace those beams with steel and to do other renovations to the basement. The 1997 plans to renovate the basement became a reality during the next two and a half years. Bishop Ryan allowed the parish to borrow $500,000 to completely rebuild the basement into three classrooms, a waiting room, kitchen, handicapped restrooms and an office for the catechism and youth directors. By this time, work on the exterior of the church had been completed, but not paid back to the diocese. The brick walls were sand blasted and tuck-pointed on the inside. The floor was dug up and new concrete was poured. All the plumbing was replaced from the street and the entire church building itself was rewired. During the basement renovation, the church was without heat and air conditioning for one year, causing the plaster to crack and flake upstairs. With the permission of the bishop’s office, our loan was extended to $700,000 to restore the sanctuary and nave with up-to-date liturgical functionality. A Reconciliation Room was built along with a larger baptismal fountain. The sanctuary was made handicapped accessible. In fact, the entire sanctuary was lowered one step to accommodate the new design features. Practically everything one looks at in the church was touched. Every piece of statuary was restored and the tabernacle was re-plated in St. Louis. The attempt on the people’s part was to preserve and enhance the architectural quality of the church. To celebrate the project a logo of seven roses and seven tears was developed. The 7 tears representing the 7 sorrows of Mary.
This history was assembled from prior histories of the parish done by Mary Burtschi and Father Charles Sellars, as well as information provided by the author.
Pastors of Mother of Dolors Church
Thomas Walsh ~ for four years Franciscans came from Teutopolis each Sunday for Mass.