Rochester’s Oldest Catholic Church Remains A Vital Presence in the Community

The city of Rochester was founded in 1854 by George Head.

The Church of Saint John the Evangelist was the first Catholic Church in Rochester. It was founded in 1863 by Rev. James Morris, who bought three lots opposite to the old Court House as a site for a church. It is on this spot that The Church of St. John the Evangelist still stands.

The church was completed at a cost of $40,000. On December 1, 1872, it was dedicated by Bishop Grace, assisted by Rev. John Ireland of St. Paul, Rev. J. B. Cotter of Winona, and Rev. Thomas O’ Gorman, pastor.

In June 1881, Rev. William Riordan came from Chatfield to be St. John’s pastor for 31 years. The membership of the parish was at that time about 600.

During these years the growth of the parish was marked, and a need was felt for expansion. On October 12, 1900, the cornerstone was laid.

The church was completed at a cost of $60,000 in 1905. On April 27th of that year, Archbishop Ireland delivered the sermon at the Mass. Of a special interest in the church were a number of stained glass windows given by parishioners for their family members as memorials.

About this time, a group of parishioners organized St. John’s Dramatic Club for the production of amateur plays, and for many years provided the St. Patrick’s Day programs. This venture proved successful enough financially to pay for the first pipe organ installed in St. John’s Church at the cost of $3000.

In 1905 at Christmas electric lights on the Altar (the gift of a parishioner) and holy water fonts (donated by St. Joseph’s society) were used for the first time in this occasion.

Rev. J. A. Cummiskey of Winona came to act as assistant at St. John’s in January of 1908. During his period, Father Cummiskey organized a club for the youth in the parish, called St. John’s Institute. The Institute provided opportunity for recreational activities as well as religious discussion.

By 1911, Father Cummiskey had been transferred. Rev. J. L. O’Connor came from Sauk Center to be the administrative pastor and he started the plans for schools to be built on the property adjoining the church.

Three new schools were completed and opened for classes in September of 1913: a grade school for all; a High School for girls’ known as St. John’s, and taught by the sisters; and the other, Heffron High School for boys.

Father O’Connor resigned in 1914; and Rev. Garret P. Murphy came to begin a pastorate for twenty five years.

Rev. Peter W. Bartholome was named pastor in 1940. During his time, Lourdes High School was begun and the rectory was completed.

In 1942, Rev. Louis D. O’Day came to St. John’s from St. Thomas’ parish in Winona. Lourdes High School was opened for classes in January 1942. In the middle of the 1950’s, Rev. O’Day, formulated plans to replace the old church building and begin an expansion program. The parish debt was paid and a building fund was started.

The building began in 1955; the architect of the new church was Edward F. Wirtz of New Ulm, Minnesota. The contractors were all from Rochester.

The edifice with a seating capacity of 1200 was one of Rochester’s most distinctive architectural acquisitions at that time. The church, built of Mankato stone, was severely simple, but most impressive and dignified. The general style of the architecture was contemporary.

The first Mass in the new church was celebrated on Sunday, January 27, 1957 at 6 a.m. by Father Joseph Mountain.

Rev. Msgr. Max M. Satory became pastor on February 27, 1964. It was the 100th anniversary of St. John’s. Events for the observance were an open house for the public on September 27, a parish census, and a special centennial Thanksgiving Day Mass.

By 1967, Rev. Msgr. Raymond J. Jansen was named pastor of St. John’s. Many parishioners recall the “Movement for a Better World” held in February of 1972. It was one of the largest and most inspirational spiritual events to take place at St. John’s following Vatican II.

Rev. Msgr. Joseph Mountain, a native of Rochester, became pastor in July, 1975. He continued the implementation of the decrees of Vatican II. “The most important piece of furniture for the liturgy of the Catholic Church is the Altar of Sacrifice. Because of it, the mode and design of it has changed with the renewal within the Church.” The remodeling began in the summer of 1977, and was completed in a few months.

In December 1975, the first extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist were commissioned to distribute the Eucharist during the Eucharistic celebration and to homebound parishioners.

Father Virgil Duellman, came to St. John’s in June of 1983. During his period Father Duellman reviewed the parish committees’ functions. By May 1984, he presented clearly defined responsibilities for each committee.

In 1991, Rev. James McCauley became pastor of St. John’s. During his period Father McCauley worked in developing and establishing a formal staff that supported him both administratively and ministerially.

Rev. Msgr. Gerald A. Mahon was named pastor of St. John’s in 1995. By the end of 1996 a liturgical consultant met with the Liturgical committee to provide education for liturgy and environment. In the summer of 1997 Fr. Mahon formed an enhancement committee comprised of 18 members of the parish community.

This committee with the advice and support of Sr. Jean Ersfeld, Diocesan Liturgist, began to explore the possibilities for the renovation of the sacred space.

In 1998 a needs assessment survey was developed and then distributed to the parish. The results of that survey indicated that parishioners were most concerned about:

In response of all these concerns the committee developed a vision statement for the enhancement of the church that said:

“We believe that faith is not so much a destination as a journey, a process of growth and development that must be sustained at every step along life’s path. The Church of St. John’s must provide this faith experience for all people.

We believe the people of The Church of St. John the Evangelist wish to intensify the close community we have enjoyed through the years, which will encourage and enrich full liturgical participation of our parish community.

We believe that we must maintain a place to experience God’s tender care, to form and transform a holy people whose lives are sustained by God’s love.

Therefore, we desire:

In response to this vision statement in March of 1999, the architects developed the final proposal, which consisted of turning the church 180 degrees, creating a gathering space and a fellowship area in the old school gym, and adding a chapel to the 4th Ave. side of the church, available for use by church members and the hundreds of visitors who stop in from the Mayo Clinic campus.

During 2000 the School of St. John’s was renovated allowing the Church Renovation to begin in 2001. For one year, the parish community worshipped in the new gymnasium, setting up and taking down 200 chairs each weekend!

The dedication celebration at the new sanctuary took place on May 19, 2002, The Feast of Pentecost. Bishop Bernard J. Harrington, Bishop of the Diocese of Winona presided at this celebration.

The renovated sanctuary provides handicap accessibility, a worship space that accommodates all, a devotional space, a permanent baptismal font, a music space, a gathering area, a chapel, an outdoor space that provides a place of rest and peace, and a subway connection with Mayo buildings.

Father Mahon in his bulletin on May 5, 2002 said “…the Enhancement Committee was formed and began meeting every other week in the summer of 1997. During the past five years, our dream has unfolded in front of us brick by brick and we are prepared to be a strong, vibrant parish community for the next 100 years.”