Irish eyes smiling on 'Rock Church' in Franklin County

Linda Amend of Immaculate Conception Parish in Maplewood and Darlene Westermann of St. Peter Parish in Kirkwood sat in the family pew at St. Patrick "Old Rock" Church in Armagh.

They were attending a St. Patrick's Day Mass March 17 at the church in Franklin County much as their ancestors had -- except that they came in a car and not in a horse and buggy. The church looked just as it had in the late 1880s, when their great-grandfather was an altar boy during the pastorate of Father Edward Berry.

The slightly worn, dark, wooden pews date to 1885. Wooden beams arch to the ceiling and elongated arched windows reach toward heaven. Statues of the Virgin Mary and child, St. Joseph and St. Patrick rest at the sides of the altar. There is no heat, air-conditioning or electric, just as when their ancestors came to the church.

When visiting the church, Amend said, "we feel like we're coming home. We've been coming out here forever, since we were little kids."

Mass is celebrated at the church, a mission of St. James in Catawissa, three times a year: St. Patrick's Day, Memorial Day and a homecoming picnic day, this year Sunday, Aug. 17.

An 1885 look

"Everything is exactly like it was in 1885," said Billy Murphy, president of the St. Patrick's Current Preservation Society, which maintains the church and cemetery. "We have everything rebuilt now. It took 40 years to get it done."

St. Patrick was established in 1843 by Archbishop Peter R. Kenrick. The first resident pastor, Father John O'Hanlon, arrived in 1847. In 1852, with the log structure no longer large enough, plans were made for a new church a few miles away. The foundation of the present church was completed several years later using stones quarried by hand.

The Stations of the Cross came from France in 1855 at a cost of 10 cents apiece. The hand-pump organ dates to 1893, the oldest in the state that is not mechanical. The organ was taken apart piece by piece and sent to Iowa, where it was rebuilt in six months.

St. Patrick had ceased to be a parish in 1925. Road closures and a railroad that stopped in Catawissa led people to gravitate to St. James Parish, about four miles away. A group had formed in 1939, led by granddaughters of Edward Mason, one of the pioneer settlers of the area, to hold a picnic to raise funds to help maintain the church.

Preservation effort

In 1972, the archdiocese no longer could afford insurance costs associated with the church. A decision to tear it down was reversed after supporters in the preservation society rallied to restore and maintain it. Since then, Murphy said, $1.3 million has been contributed to the cause. Murphy, a member of St. James Parish in Catawissa, fields calls from across the country asking how the group rebuilt the church.

"We have an all-new roof on the church and the rectory," he noted.

A caretaker lives at the rectory and provides security and assistance on the property. Some weddings and baptisms take place there.

The three yearly Masses attract people from a wide area, especially on Memorial Day and for the picnic. Volunteers who work at the picnic come from more than a dozen states to work and to visit relatives, Murphy noted.

As much as 70 percent of the visitors on Memorial Day have relatives buried in the cemetery. After a recent purchase of 58 markers, every gravesite in the cemetery will be marked, Murphy noted. "We go back to 1853," he said.

As many as 10 people a year are buried in the cemetery, with the last burial a couple months ago.

Community effort

In the early 1800s, the area included almost all Irish immigrants. Those who were not Catholic, Murphy said, would show up when they heard a priest was coming to the church. "The priest used to ride his horse once a month from Richwoods. The people for 10 miles around -- now imagine that distance in a buggy -- Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ -- were so starved to hear the Word of God they would all take off of work and come for services and dinner."

Many of the Protestant family members were buried in the cemetery.

The picnic takes approximately 300 people to put it on, Murphy said, and 150 of them are Protestant. "Whenever you go to Mass out there you'll see any number of Protestants. When they go to Mass, at Communion they will fold their arms across their chest and (the priest) will give them a blessing."

Families that go back as far as five generations come to help at the picnic, Murphy said.

One of the bishops of the archdiocese usually celebrates the Memorial Day Mass, Murphy said. "The bishops and the archdiocese have been really good to us."

Appropriate choice

On March 17, people from across the archdiocese came to Mass at the church in Franklin County. Greg Caldwell of St. John the Baptist in Villa Ridge said he could have spent the day at the St. Patrick's Day parade in south St. Louis but thought that attending a Mass on the saint's feast was a more appropriate choice.

Caldwell said he is a quarter Irish, with his Irish ancestors including John Colter, one of the first men hired to go on the 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Ocean. Another ancestor is Kincaid Caldwell, a colleague of Daniel Boone, who settled in what is now Marthasville.

Pointing to the church, Caldwell said "the more I look to the future, the more I want to embrace the past," adding his admiration for the people who have restored the church

Mary Louise Sappington of St. Anthony Parish in Sullivan and her brother, Dan McNamee of St. Bridget of Kildare Parish in Pacific, noted that their grandfather, Joseph McNamee, was the first person to play the church organ that is still used today.

Pauline Masson of St. Bridget Parish has written a book and articles for the Washington Missourian about the church. "I just fell in love with this church," she said.

About a dozen people from the American Association of Railroaders came aboard a 1958 Trailways bus. Richard A. Eichhorst, president of the group, said he enjoyed seeing what was once the center of a community before other towns formed in the area.

Del Viehland, a member of the church preservation board who attends St. Martin United Church of Christ in Dittmer and lives nine miles away on a farm that has been in the family for generations, explained how Protestants and Catholics have come together to support the church renovation.

St. Patrick in Armagh

• Plans for the current St. Patrick Church were made in 1852, with construction stopping during the Civil War and the church completed in 1866.

• Built of Missouri limestone or sandstone and based on a 7-foot pyramid rock foundation. A dry mortar method was used in the initial foundation and wet mortar after construction resumed.

• A fire in 1885 destroyed the rectory and damaged the church. Both were rebuilt within a year.

• The Civil War touched the area briefly when rebels invaded and took several hostages. Union soldiers soon arrived and returned the settlers to their homes unharmed.

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