St. Mary of Lourdes is the oldest parish in the Peoria Diocese and, in fact, is nearly 40 years older than the diocese itself.
It started on or near the former site of an Indian village once led by Chief Black Partridge, where a church was constructed of logs in 1840 and served by a traveling priest. It was called St. Raphael’s at Black Partridge and was under the diocese of St. Louis.
When the first settlers came here, Woodford County was a land of thick timber and brush, of ponds and swamps and sloughs, and of wild animals. Timber and brush made up vast forests of unbroken wilderness. High bluffs stood along the Illinois River and along Partridge Creek and Ten Mile Creek. In the prairies of the other parts of the county, there grew a tough grass that reached up to 10 ten feet. The danger feared above all others was the deadly prairie fire. The grass usually became very dry in the fall and afforded an easy means of starting a fire which spread with inconceivable swiftness. The glow of the fire and the black clouds of smoke could be seen for a great distance. The roaring of the flames could be heard far off and wild animals dashed by in their mad flight.
The land teemed with animals, among them buffaloes, wildcats, buzzards, beavers, raccoons, opossum, rabbits, squirrels, swans, ducks, geese, turkeys, deer, fox, and wolves. There were snakes that grew to 12 feet and the poisonous copperhead and rattler.
There were no roads, only narrow Indian trails. The earliest settlers in their covered wagons traveled over these trails, through the high prairie grass, over slough and swamps and forded bridgeless streams and rivers. In the 1820s, the United States government sold surveyed land to the first settlers here for $1.25 an acre.
The early settlers came here not only from elsewhere in the United States but also from Europe, especially from the banks of the Rhine River and from Bavaria in Germany; from the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, which at that time belonged to France; and from Ireland. They came by boat, by covered wagon, and by stage coach. Emigrants from Pennsylvania made their way mostly with ox teams. Some came to Chicago and from there continued to Woodford County. Some came from the area of Cincinnati, Ohio. Many came by boat to New Orleans and then up the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers and landed by Spring Bay Township.
All had stories to tell, such as John Hass who, at the age of 25, emigrated from Bavaria, Germany, in 1836. He landed in New York with $3 in his pocket and procured work at his trade as shoemaker. As soon as he’d saved enough, he headed west to Woodford County. There he later bought 160 acres of mostly timberland which he improved into a fine farm. Chicago was the nearest grain market and he conveyed his wheat there by ox team. It took two weeks to make the round trip and he received 36 cents a bushel for his grain.
On Oct. 11, 1840, John Haas married Anna Mary Rosenberger, the first marriage solemnized in the new church of St. Raphael at Black Partridge. Ten years later, Anna Mary died leaving John with three small children. He soon remarried and two more children were born. But these two children, plus an
older child, drowned in 1853 when the family was returning home from an outing and the wagon box was lifted from the wheels of the wagon as the family crossed swollen Partridge Creek during a storm. In the next three years, four more children were born, two of whom died, and John, himself, died tragically in 1856 as the result of a fall from a wagon.
But the settlers prevailed and proceeded to build farms, community and, most importantly, their church.
Parishes had been established in the Chicago and St. Louis areas in the very early 1800s, but the area in between was a religious wilderness. The establishing of St. Raphael’s at Black Partridge (Lourdes) was helped by the construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, begun in 1836, and forming a connecting waterway from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. Canal construction brought thousands of Irish construction workers, most of whom were Catholic. In December, 1837, one of the contractors of the canal petitioned the bishop of St. Louis to send priests to the region and he dispatched Father John Blase Raho and Father Aloysius John Parodi
as missionary priests.
The journey of Fathers Raho and Parodi from their seminary south of St. Louis on the Mississippi River to LaSalle on the Illinois River took about a week. When the two arrived at midnight on Thursday, March 29, 1838, they received a surprising welcome. Five hundred men and women were there to meet them with lit torches; steamboats whistled, a band played, drums were beat, the crowd shouted. Then followed a midnight parade with each priest atop borrowed horses. Each Father was given a horse to ride the mile to the log cabin home that would be their temporary home.
Father Raho was anxious to build a church at La Salle to be his headquarters. Up and down the canal he went, stopping at the camps, at the boarding houses, at the shanties, begging money for the building of a log church. This was finally constructed and opened for worship on July 1, 1838, and given the name “Holy Cross Church.”
Father Raho, who’s been called “The Apostle of Central Illinois,” made many long, extensive missionary journeys all over the central part of the state. He traveled by foot, horseback, horse and buggy, and boat. And he made his first visit to St. Raphael’s at Black Partridge on March 9, 1939, a year after arriving at LaSalle. Eight German families in the settlement of almost 200 souls had organized the parish the previous year in the hope that one of the LaSalle priests would come to conduct services. Father Raho documented the “the settlement was “a center for German and French Catholics. The Catholics are so numerous that a church is needed.” He promised to come every other month.
By 1840, the parish of St. Raphael’s constructed its first church of logs felled by the pioneers in the nearby forests. The first parish records of Father Raho show a baptism and a marriage both done in that log cabin church on Oct. 11, 1840. Early in 1841, Father Francis X. Damien was assigned to the parish; 63 other pastors would follow over the next 175 years.
In 1843, the Diocese of Chicago was founded and assumed the central Illinois parishes formerly attached to St. Louis.
By 1851, the log cabin church was too small so the parish launched efforts for a new one by obtaining 10 acres across the road from the old church. Construction began in 1852 with parishioners handling much of the work. The building itself would be 80 feet long and 45 feet wide. In the fall of 1855, this new church was dedicated under the title of The Immaculate Conception. But most called in simply St. Mary’s.
And the parish had just welcomed it first resident pastor, Father Eusebius Kaiser who moved into a new rectory. A new, larger rectory was built in 1871 and expanded in 1884.
Also on the parish grounds was a school. The first classes were conducted in a parishioner’s log cabin. A dedicated school was built in 1846, also of logs. A second, larger school was built about 1859. Within 20 years, this one-room facility had nearly 100 students. At first, it was run by lay teachers but, in 1882, two Franciscan nuns arrived to take over teaching duties.
Then, in 1882, the school became a public school and all the students had religion classes before and after the regular curriculum lessons.
Finally, in 1955 after 109 years of educating the children of the parish, the school closed.
Diocesan priests under the Chicago Diocese served the parish until the creation of the Peoria Diocese in 1875. Then, in 1919, the Franciscan Fathers of Province of St. John the Baptist based in Cincinnati took charge of the parish and continued for the next 90 years until the parish again came under the service of the Peoria diocese.
During most of those earlier years, all the way up to 1925, services were said and songs were sung in German due to the predominance of Germans in the congregation. Then English was introduced for some Masses. By about 1930, all services were in English.
The parish was known officially as Immaculate Conception, or simply St. Mary’s, until late in the 1800s when the government decided the open a post and wanted to know what it should be called. Various names were bandied about to replace what informally was the settlement of Black Partridge. The name Lords was chosen, it is said, due to the influence of three men who “lorded over” the community. So the parish took on the moniker of St. Mary’s or Lords. A new priest, who arrived in 1881, assumed it was meant to be St. Mary of Lourds for the town in France where the Blessed Virgin appeared 18 times to a peasant girl. Then in 1921 it was changed to the correctly spelled Lourdes. It’s been St. Mary of Lourdes ever since.
The parish, the first in Woodford County, the oldest in the Peoria Diocese, has had its share of colorful characters, strange incidents and feuds, ups and downs, and joys and sorrows.
For a fuller version and details of those glorious years, go to the Parish Hall and ask for a copy of the parish history published in 1980.