From its beginnings in 1870, one year before foundation of the city of Morris, Assumption parish has been a vibrant center of Catholicism throughout the western counties of the Diocese of St. Cloud. Many factors contributed to this fact, among which are the fact that the city serves as the seat of Stevens County. In addition, Morris has been an educational center in the state since its founding, a fact just as true today as then.
Unlike most other parishes in the diocese, Assumption originated after regular visits from two missionary priests, Father Hurley and McDermott of St. Paul. Periodically, they travelled to Morris via the railroad and offered Mass in a railroad section house. Catholicism came of age with the arrival of Fr. Patrick Walsh as the first resident pastor in 1876. At that time, Assumption was considered the hub of Catholicism in western Minnesota, serving all of Stevens, Pope, Traverse, Wilkin, Big Stone and Swift counties.
About 70 families made up the parish in its beginning and Irish was the predominant nationality. However, it was a German immigrant and local businessman, William Wunsch, who is considered the “Father of the Parish.” For 86 years, Mr. Wunsch served the parish as one of its most generous servants.
The first framed church was constructed in 1877 during the pastorate of Fr. Charles Wensieski. It was constructed on a corner lot donated by the Great Northern Railroad. In the early 1880’s, a parish house was built and a school opened under the direction of Fr. Francis Watry. At first, students were taught by lay teachers and later by nuns, first from St. Benedict and later from the Sisters of Mercy.
Unfortunately, not long after commissioning the new school, economic conditions forced the parish to discontinue classes. However, the Sisters of Mercy knew they were called to teach. Partnering with the United States government, they administered an American Indian boarding school on present day land that is home to the University of Minnesota, Morris. When the school closed in 1909, the Sisters of Mercy transferred the school to the State of Minnesota with a stipulation that American Indian students “be admitted to such school free of charge.” The policy stands today.
Fr. William Lange succeeded Fr. Watry in 1885, followed by Fr. Frank Reilly in June 1886 before Fr. Watry returned in August of the same year. Two months later, Fr. George Gaskell became paster for the next fourteen years until his death in November 1900.
According to records, Fr. Gaskell was firm, but wise. In 1892, he led construction of a large, brick-veneered church for a total cost of $12,000 (worth about $315,000 in 2015). While $315,00 sounds like a bargain for a church today, remember, the population of Morris was only about 1,200 in 1890 and economic conditions were harsh.
The new church was solemnly dedicated on August 6, 1893, by Archbishop Zardette, then bishop of Saint Cloud Diocese. Fr. Gaskell died in 1900 and five years later the church he built was destroyed by fire. Fr. Edward Jones, who had come to the parish earlier that year, led arrangements to immediately design and build a new church building.
On May 20, 1906, Bishop James Trobec, twelve priests and four thousand individual onlookers solemnly laid the corner stone of the new church (you can see the cornerstone today in the southwest corner of the building). The new church was constructed at a cost of about $40,000 (worth $1.02 million in 2015).
The new church received many accolades for both its brawn and beauty and got attention from architectural observers all over the country. For example, the church basement was pronounced to be “the finest in the Northwest.” In addition, it was said, “The people of the Assumption Parish in Morris now possess one of the finest buildings of its kind in the state of Minnesota.”
In 1910, the parish acquired half a block of property and a home for the Sisters of St. Joseph. They opened a parochial school in the spacious church basement in 1911. Three years later, the present St. Mary’s School was built. The first floor classrooms were used for 140 grade school children, while the second floor housed 78 high school students. No tuition was charged.
Remodeling and enlarging the parish house, building a new church, purchasing a home for the Sisters of St. Joseph and building a school cement Fr. Jones’ legacy as a builder. Records indicate he was a man with vision and exceptional ability. After 16 years of priestly leadership, Fr. Jones retired in 1921 and passed away on August 19, 1929.
Father Jones was succeeded by Fr. George Rauch. During his pastorate, parish debt was greatly reduced and the high school was accredited by the University of Minnesota. When Father Rauch was transferred to Long Prairie in 1932, he left Assumption in a healthy financial and spiritual condition.
Father Rauch was succeeded by the Very Rev. John A. Fearon. During his pastorate of seven years, parish buildings were thoroughly repaired, renovated and decorated. Among Monsignor Fearon’s recognitions was his appointment in 1952 as Domestic Prelate by his Holiness, Pope Pius XII. He was invested as such in very colorful ceremonies on June 11, 1952, in Morris.
The years of Monsignor Fearon’s pastorate in Morris can best be recounted by referring to the Morris Sun and Tribune’s account at the time of his death in November 1953:
“The death of Monsignor Fearon was not unexpected for he had failed rapidly in recent weeks and had been in a coma since Friday. The sad news of his passing at 11:20 Sunday morning was received with deepest sorrow and regret by the entire community for during the years he had labored here he had won the admiration, esteem, and high respect of, and was beloved by all and had especially endeared himself to his parishioners. His work in the parish has been outstanding and in his death the community loses one of its most able citizens.”
Fr. Ziegler succeeded Monsignor Fearon in 1954 as pastor at Assumption and served until July of 1957.
That summer, Monsignor Benedict Petermeier was appointed dean of the Morris deanery and pastor of Assumption Parish. Monsignor directed the renovation of the church, school and rectory at a cost of some $45,000; bought adjoining lots, a home and began the Newman center; and was instrumental in building the Villa of St. Francis, a nursing home for the aged, at a cost of about $600,000.
Following Monsignor Petermeier in 1969 was Fr. Donald Rieder. Fr. Rieder served until 1970 when Fr. Lawrence Botz assumed pastoral responsibilities and commissioned extensive and costly upkeep and repair projects at the church, rectory, school and convent. Drastic changes to the interior of the church were commissioned as a result of the Second Vatican Council. The ornate main and side alters were removed, as were the pulpit and communion rail and a table altar was installed. In addition, the front pews were rearranged and the confessionals were remodeled.
Also during Fr. Botz’s tenure, a home on Third Street (across Colorado Avenue west of the parish) was purchased as a new convent for the sisters of Assumption. The Newman Center and its activities replaced the old convent, which is located on top of the hill at the corner of Fourth Street and Montana Avenue.
After twelve years of service at Assumption, Fr. Botz’s pastorate ended in 1982 when he was succeeded by Bernard Kahlhamer. Fr. Kahlhamer served for three years before Fr. Gerald “Jerry” Dalseth was appointed pastor in 1986. Native to Morris, he was the first local “son” of the parish to serve in this capacity. Fr. Dalseth was son to Ernest and Blanche and graduated from Morris High School in 1956.
In response to a priest shortage in the diocese, Sister Christelle Wattercott, O.S.F. was hired as pastoral associate in 1990. She performed many of the ministries formally tasked to associate pastors. Sister Christelle is a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, the same community that helped to staff our parish school since 1943.
Fr. Jerry spearheaded a major renovation of the church from 1992-1994. During the project, weekend Masses were celebrated in the basement and daily Mass in the school gym. Work included infrastructure repair, pew repair and refinishing, new paint and flooring, remodeled restrooms and redesigned areas for the choir and baptismal font. An addition was also added to the east entrance of the building that included an elevator for access to the church and basement. In 1994, the fund goal of $500,000 was accomplished.
By 1997, the old convent was razed to make way for brand new Newman Center facilities, which opened in time for the start of classes at UMM in 1998. That same year, Fr. Jerry was called to a new church. He said the twelve years spent in his home parish were truly the “crowning point” of his priesthood.
In July, Fr. Alan Wielinski moved into the pastor’s residence and became the nineteenth priest at Assumption. During Fr. Alan’s tenure, he introduced the ministry of weekend sacristans as well as the practice of Communion under both species at all Masses. Many new Eucharistic ministers were recruited and two readers began to be scheduled for each Mass.
In 2003, the last Franciscan teacher at St. Mary’s School, Sister Marguerite Ostendorf, retired her teaching duties. The Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls served in various capacities at St. Mary’s for 60 years. Following the sisters’ departure, their house was remodeled, redecorated and became the new pastoral residence. During the same period, the now former rectory was renovated to accommodate for more office and meeting space.
Through the friendship of Fr. Alan and Fr. Lucho Palomino of the Chimbote Diocese in Peru, Assumption adopted Fr. Lucho’s parish as our sister church. Fr. Lucho spent a year in Morris from 2003-2004, where he learned English and arranged several “reverse mission” groups from Minnesota to Peru. In 2004, the Federated Church in Morris joined Assumption in sponsoring projects with Fr. Lucho, making the effort a truly ecumenical enterprise.
The old green fans that moved air around the church during summertime were retired in 2005 and replaced by a central air conditioning system. The fresh, man made air was financed by a car raffle during the previous year’s Septemberfest.
Fr. Alan was called to parishes in St. Cloud in 2007 and Fr. John Caskey was appointed pastor in Morris. A short year later, we were blessed with the arrival of Fr. Tim Baltes. Like a seasoned, spiritually-gifted businessman, Fr. Tim quickly went to work restoring the faith and trust of parishioners. He was respected for his strong, swift leadership during a difficult period. Fr. Tim will long be remembered for teaching love and most importantly, the great lesson of forgiveness.
By 2011, our second local priest returned home for one last pastorate stop before retirement. Fr. Bob Kiefer and his cat, Helga, moved into the priest’s residence in July of that year. During one of his first messages to parishioners, he said his stint at home would be short for he planned to retire at age 70. Upon Fr. Bob’s retirement, Fr. Todd Schneider become pastor in 2013.
In the summer of 2014, not long after the end of the school year and conclusion of vacation bible school, the roof of St. Mary’s School collapsed from the weight of thousands of gallons of rain water that had pooled. It was later discovered the drain was plugged by a wine bottle. Like a tidal wave as it traveled from roof, to basement, to tunnel between school and church, the water and its force heavily damaged all three floors. Initially, it was thought the school could be a total loss. However, blessed with great insurance and an experienced, professional cleaning and restoration team, the school opened just two weeks late for classes and on time for a special 100th anniversary celebration of the building in September.