History of St. John the Baptist Parish in Peosta, Iowa
The parish of St. John the Baptist at Peosta has a very unique history. The parish has worshipped at three churches at different sites, the first one in Centralia and then two thus far in Peosta. On July 14, 1874 Bishop John Hennessy of Dubuque granted the Vernon and Center Township Catholics permission to build a church at Centralia, 10 miles west of Dubuque. Peter E. Erschens donated seven acres of land for the new church and more land was purchased from the Methodist Church Committee. During the building of the church, Father B. W. Coyle, of West Dubuque, assisted the trustees by his advice and in the collection of funds. Father Coyle celebrated Holy Mass and administered the sacraments in a building owned by James F. McKeon. The Rev. R. Ryan, V. G., laid the cornerstone in the Fall of 1874. The church was finished in 1875, and The Rev. George W. Heer was appointed the first pastor of the parish on Sept. 1, 1875. The parish debt was $5000 on which an interest of 10% was being paid. This church served the people for 49 years. Father Heer was forced to rent a couple of small rooms in the Klocker house as there was no rectory, later moving into one of Erschens’ old houses. However, this was too cold in the winter, and the rain came through the roof in the summer, so he went back to Klocker’s. In 1877, the people build a rectory for him.
The parish opened a school in 1878 and later added a convent, with the Franciscan Sisters conducting the school and staying until 1913.
Subsequent pastors at Centralia were the following: Father Joseph C. Nacke; Father Joseph Kuemper, who built the Sister’s house and a parochial brick school and paid off many old and new debts; Father Hermengilde Rottler, who had the briefest pastorate – 12 days; Father H.J. Hemesath who zealously served the congregation for 10 years, improving the church and cemetery and also reducing the parish debt; and Father Bauemler, who was an excellent pastor for 10 months. On October 1898, the Rev. P.A.R. Tierney was appointed as pastor to the Centralia parish, with the additional charge of the mission church at Lattnerville. In 1914, Father Tierney resigned due to ill health. One of his notable achievements was the complete reduction of the parish debt. The church was dedicated during his pastorate.
Father Luke Donlon was the next pastor. Beginning in 1914 he worked hard for his flock at Centralia. When the railroad came through Peosta, then Archbishop James J. Keane deemed it advisable to move St. John the Baptist parish from Centralia to Peosta in 1923, but the cemetery remains in Centralia to this day. A number of parishioners from Centralia did not like their church being moved so they quit going to church in Centralia and instead started going to Mass in Dubuque. They complained that they would have to wait for trains. Most of them are now buried in the cemetery at Centralia.
Father Luke Donlon, as pastor in 1923, contracted for a fireproof combination church and school. Because the former rectory was moved from Centralia to serve as a convent for the four Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary who were to teach in Peosta, a new rectory was also built. Five acres of fine land were purchased for $1000. The contract for the fireproof combination church and school, and priest’s house was let for $54,000. Archbishop Keane dedicated St. John the Baptist church on May 30, 1925. The former convent, used by the Franciscan Sisters, was moved from Centralia also, and placed across the road from the new building in readiness for future high school classes.
Father Wenceslaus Dostal succeeded Fr. Dolan as pastor in 1924 for a short time. On Dec. 3, 1924, Father J. Fred Kriebs (later Monsignor) was assigned to the pastorate of the Peosta parish, which then had a total indebtedness of $86,000. Father Kriebs worked hard to reduce this debt to $19,500 by the end of a 10-year period. One unique debt-reduction activity undertaken by the Peosta Parish was a “Pignic!” – the first successful one being held in 1925. When approached by Father Kriebs as to suggestions to reduce the debt, local farmers asked him if he didn’t want a pig to help pay the debt. Realizing that one pig might not help a lot, but that many pigs would, a date of December 2, 1925 was set for the first Pignic Day. On that day over 200 farmers and their families came to Peosta to celebrate and each farmer brought a pig. These pigs were sold for $6,000. For the second annual Pignic Day held a year late on December 1, 1926 forty-five communities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque participated, and about 750 hogs were designated to be sold to help reduce the Peosta Parish debt. The parish provided a dinner and entertainment for the families of those who donated the pigs. In 1926 the newly ordained Father George A. Stemm (later Monsignor) arrived to serve as an assistant to Father Kriebs and greatly aided in the “Pignic” endeavor.
When the new church/school combination was built in Peosta the church was upstairs. It was planned to be temporary until a new church could be built. The plan then was that the upstairs was just going to be a gym, the main floor was going to be divided into schoolrooms, and the basement was going to have a kitchen, a hall, a bowling alley, restrooms and a furnace room. The bowling alley was taken out later. The high school and grade school were all in the same church building on the main floor. In about 1929 or 1930 the high school was moved across the road to the former Centralia convent while the grade school remained in the church building.
Life-long parishioner Francis Koetz, born the year the parish moved to Peosta, shared these stories.
“On Sunday mornings when the weather was snowy we would go to church in a horse-drawn bobsled. We left from our home in Centralia to make the trek to the church in Peosta. Family and neighbors had hopped in the sled for a ride to church. One morning as we were going we turned off of the road just past the cemetery near what is today Royal Oaks subdivision. We upset the bobsled, but because everyone was covered in blankets, no one was hurt. We set the sled back upright and continued on to church.
“On another occasion we were traveling to school from Centralia to Peosta in the horse-drawn bobsled. The year was 1928. The snow was so deep that the horses got stuck in the snow. At that time there was no such thing as snow days out of school. They had to dig the horses out of the snow with shovels and we had to make our way home through the fields. Some men got in the sled with Dad to make a path through the fields to our home, and then they came back for the kids before heading back to Centralia.”
“Yearly there were two picnics: one in July and one on Labor Day. Sometimes the picnic was held in Centralia. The parishioners furnished the food, chicken, potatoes, and the pies. Another fundraiser happened in the 1940s when they made candles twenty-four hours a day in the basement of the rectory to be shipped all over the country to help relieve the parish debt.”
“During World War II, the church in Peosta had banners on the end of the pew of each family who had a family member in any branch of the service. What is remarkable is that after the war was over, everyone came home, even the prisoners of war; no one was killed.”
Father Kriebs continued to minister to the spiritual needs of both the Peosta and Lattnerville parishes and schools until he was appointed to the business management of “The Witness,” official newspaper of the archdiocese on Feb. 6, 1935. At that time the Rev. B. W. Frommelt was assigned as his successor at Peosta. Between 1929 and 1936, Father Harold Ginter, Father Anthony Chihak (later Monsignor), and Father Louis White were assistant pastors for the Peosta parish.
In the summer of 1938 Father Clair Drummy succeeded Father Frommelt as pastor. Both Fr. Frommelt and Fr. Drummy were able to significantly get the parish debt reduced. Also at that time in addition to Annunciation Parish, Lattnerville, the Peosta Parish had the spiritual care of the County Home at Julien. Among the assistants who served at this period was Father William Most, later renowned for his teaching method in Latin. Father Drummy left parish work to become a chaplain in the United States Navy in July of 1943. A native of Peosta, Father John J. L. Breitbach, was appointed pastor in September 1943. Through the efforts of the parishioners and Father Breitbach, the parish debt was paid off and the mortgage was burned in April 1945. Later it was financially possible for the parish to purchase the Peosta Community Hall, and 7 ½ acres adjoining the parochial property. The hall served as both gymnasium and auditorium; the land afforded ample playground and recreational area for the children. The following years saw a great increase in the number of parishioners and growth in the school. Father John J. Breitbach served until 1982 when Father _________________ became pastor.
With fewer sisters to help in the school, in 1987 the rectory-turned convent was leased to the Hoffmann –Schneider Funeral Home as a West Dubuque Chapel in Peosta. This didn’t last very long as the parish was growing and a new church was needed. It was decided to sell and move the rectory built in 1923 and build a new church on that site. In September of 1988, ground was broken for the third St. John’s on the site of the previous rectory. The original rectory from Centralia once again became the home of the pastor, and served as this until 2007 when an off-site apartment was procured for then-pastor Father Kuhn. At that time the building then became the site of the parish offices.
On June 25, 1989 (this date is from the 2002 St. John the Baptist Parish directory, but the archdiocesan history book of 2011 says it was dedicated on May 10, 1989), the dedication of the new St. John’s Church was held. The church hall in the basement was named for two Shannon sisters, Genevieve and Josephine, long time parishioners whose large bequest helped fund the new church. There is a tribute to the sisters with their story on the wall in the church hall.
In 1989, the Lattnerville parish became an oratory under the supervision of St. John the Baptist Parish; and Holy Family Parish, New Melleray, became linked with St. John’s. In the fall of 2011 Holy Family, New Melleray, was linked to St. Joseph’s parish in Key West. In 2013 the Lattnerville oratory was suppressed, the church was de-blessed, and the property was sold.
In 2012 the St. John the Baptist parish was clustered with the 4 parishes of St. Elizabeth Pastorate to its west, and its offices were relocated to the pastorate offices in Epworth. The former rectory-turned parish office building and the former Seton School were deemed unsuitable for use and torn down in early 2014. The land across the street from the Peosta parish campus was sold in 2011 to help pay for the new Seton Catholic School, and the Centralia convent-turned apartments and the hall next to it were torn down.
The parish is proud of its list of priestly and religious vocations. Eight men from the parish have been ordained priests. They are Rev. Joseph Quirin, Msgr. James Taken, Rev. John J. L. Breitbach, Rev. John J. A. Breitbach, Rev. Donald D. Weydert, Rev. Donald F. Sweeney, Rev. William D. O’Brien, Rev. Lloyd P. Ouderkirk, and Rev. Kenneth Stecher. (Nine priests are listed here but one of these priests is from Annunciation parish in Lattnerville. However, I don’t know which one.)
The names of the pastors of St. John the Baptist parish in Centralia and Peosta are: Rev. George W. Heer (September 1, 1875- October 14, 1880), Rev. Joseph C Nacke (October 15, 1880 – Septebmer 12, 1883), Rev. Joseph Kuemper (September 15, 1883 – September 1887), Rev. Hermenegilde Rottler (October 1-12, 1887), Rev. H. J. Hemesath (October 12, 1887 – fall 1897), Father Bauemler (10 months), Fr. P.A.R. Tierney (October 14, 1898 – 1914), Rev. Luke Donlon (October 1914 – 1924), Rev. Wenceslaus Dostal (1924), Rev. J. Fred Kriebs (December 1924 – Ebruary 6, 1935), Rev. Bertrand Frommelt (1935-1938), Rev. Clair Drummy (1938-July 1943), Rev. John J. L. Breitbach (1943-1982); Rev. Carl Schmitt, Rev. Everett Hemann, Rev. Robert Levenhagen, ____; Rev. James J. McBride, Rev. Carl Manternach, ___; Rev. Richard Kuhn, ____; Rev. Michael Schueller (2012 – ). (Need to complete this list)
Assistant priests at St. John the Baptist parish were Father George A. Stemm, Father Anthony Chihak, Father Louis White, Father Elwyn Biere, Father William Most, Father Gerald Steiert, and currently Father John Haugen.
Priests who assisted Father Breitbach with the Sunday Masses and at other times were: Father Joseph Schendel, SVD; Father Paul Grace, the Rt. Rev. Msgr. Daniel A. Gorman (a retired priest in Peosta), and Father Louis Ernsdorff.
Due to much growth in Dubuque County St. John the Baptist Parish has greatly increased in numbers in the last 20 years. Continued growth is expected. Our present 600+ families may well be doubled or tripled in the next decade due to our area’s agricultural and industrial base near Dubuque.
History of St. John the Baptist School and its inclusion in the Seton School System
The parish opened its first school in 1878, with the Dubuque Franciscan Sisters conducting the school and staying until 1913. The new St. John the Baptist school in Peosta opened formally September 10, 1923 with an enrollment of 62 pupils, ten of whom were starting high school. Four Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary came to staff the school. Sister Mary Rosemunda O’Neill was the first principal and superior; Sister Mary Cecil Talty, Sister Mary Louis Bertrand Printy, and Sister Mary Manuel Hall were her companions. Although the intention was to have only nine grades, by 1925 popular demand favored the decision to establish a full four-year course.
The first graduates, John J. L. Breitbach, Joseph Kalb, Edmund Murphy, Alberta Burds, Katherine Breitbach, and Anna Burds, received their diplomas June 3, 1927. Because of the depression and the consequent inability to obtain salaries for the Sisters, the High School was forced to close in June of 1933. With the consent of Archbishop Beckman, Father Wolfe and Father Kriebs, the building across the road, the convent moved from Centralia, was rented to the Board of Education. In this Senior High School, supported by funds from the Independent School District, Father John J. L. Breitbach taught from 1944 to 1962.
The Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary staffed the school until ________ when the Peosta parish school was consolidated with Epworth and Placid parish schools to form EPP. Later Farley and Bankston parish schools were added, and Seton Catholic School system was formed. Eventually the lower grades were taught in Epworth and Peosta, while grades 6 through 8 were taught in Farley. In 2011 a new building was begun in Peosta, on land donated by AJ Spiegel, to provide classroom space for children in preschool through fifth grade. The doors to this beautiful new school opened to the staff and students in January of 2012.
Information from a typed/laminated poster about history of St. John the Baptist parish written in the mid 1960’s
History of St. John the Baptist Parish article from about 1967, published on-line by the Dubuque County Genealogy Society
History from the 2002 St. John the Baptist (Peosta) parish directory
Information from the archdiocesan book on the parishes – about 2011
Information provided by life-long parishioner Francis Koetz in December 2012