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Faribault's Catholic separation

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Posted: Monday, April 18, 2011 12:00 am

Editor's Note: This is the first in a two-part series on the history of the three Catholic Churches in the city of Faribault. The second part will appear in the Tuesday, April 11, edition of the Daily News.

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By Pauline Schreiber

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Daily News Staff Writer

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FARIBAULT -- Newcomers to town often puzzle over why Faribault has three Catholic churches, especially since two are within four blocks of each other.

James Mathewson did. He moved to Faribault six years ago and currently is researching the history of Faribault's Catholic church community.

The three Catholic congregations of Immaculate Conception, Sacred Heart and St. Lawrence merged into one parish in 2002 with a new name, Divine Mercy Catholic Church. The Immaculate Conception and Scared Heart church buildings are used for daily and Sunday services, but the St. Lawrence building stands mostly empty, used only for funerals and weddings.

Plans are being developed for construction of a new church, office-fellowship hall and school, to replace the existing facilities.

"We want unity in Faribault's Catholic community. Building a new church may help do that. Yet families that have lived here for generations have strong connections to one of the three churches," Mathewson said.

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Frontier church

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To explain why three separate Catholic churches developed in Faribault, Mathewson said, "People need to think back to what Faribault and Minnesota were like over 150 years ago when this area was a frontier and mostly wilderness. Mission priests from Europe came to provide services to the few Catholic settlers that were here."

But then after the government signed treaties with American Indian tribes in the early 1860s, the area opened to settlement and European immigrants arrived after hearing about Minnesota's rich prairie land, prime for farming.

"Those immigrants wanted to hear sermons in their native language," Mathewson said. "So that is why the German Catholics began St. Lawrence, and the French-Canadians separated from the Irish at Immaculate Conception and started their own church, Sacred Heart."

Faribault's "rich Catholic heritage with its three early parishes is something to celebrate," said the Rev. Kevin Finnegan, pastor of Divine Mercy Catholic church.

It was actually a decision by Catholic bishops in America in the late 1800s, that the best way to help preserve the Catholic identity of new immigrants, was to provide the different nationalities with their own church and school, Finnegan said. The Vatican approved the bishops' plan to allow for "immigrant churches" with mission priests and sermons in their native languages.

"It was thought back then that the best way to prevent immigrant Catholics from taking on the then-perceived �materialistic-American' attitudes was to isolate Catholics from the general population with their own schools and churches," Finnegan said.

"But by the 1930s, if not earlier, the second and third generation of immigrant families who settled here spoke English and came to be blended into Americans," Finnegan said. "The original purpose of the immigrant churches no longer held true."

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Earliest Mass

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The local Catholic community's earliest roots are tied to town founder and French-Canadian fur trader Alexander Faribault and the settlement of Minnesota, he said.

The first Mass offered in the area is recorded in 1848 in the home of Alexander Faribault, which at that time was a log cabin, according to the 1938 book, "Historical Sketch of the Parish of the Immaculate Conception, Faribault, Minnesota." The Rev. Augustine Ravoux, a French mission priest, officiated at that first Mass.

In the beginning, there was just one Catholic congregation in the Faribault area called Immaculate Conception, Mathewson said.

Bishop Joseph Cretin of St. Paul established Immaculate Conception parish in Faribault in 1856. It was first named St. Ann Church. Alexander Faribault contributed land and $1,000 toward construction of the church, according to the "Timeline of the Faribault Catholic Community" Mathewson has documented.

That first church burned within a year of opening, Mathewson said. The Rev. George Keller was assigned in 1857 as the first pastor of the frontier church of the Immaculate Conception parish.

After St. Ann Church burned, masses were held in Alexander Faribault's "new house," the wood-frame home the French-Canadian fur trader built for his family in 1853. The home at 12 First St. N.E. -- one of the first wood-frame homes built in Minnesota -- is now owned and maintained by the Rice County Historical Society.

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Church on the hill built

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A stone church was constructed in 1858 on the former site of St. Ann Church, at Third Street Southwest and Division Street West. Alexander Faribault again contributed $1,000 toward construction of the "new" church, which was called Immaculate Conception. He also contributed $3,000 to purchase and install a new church bell, according to the "Historical Sketch" book.

By the late 1860s, European immigrants had moved into the area in large numbers. The German Catholic immigrants in the Faribault area, in 1870, received permission from the bishop to start their own congregation, and the St. Lawrence Church congregation was started.

Mission priests from Europe would be assigned to such "immigrant parishes" so that sermons could be in the native language of the families attending church, Mathewson explained. Masses were, of course, spoken in Latin, the universal language of the Catholic church for many years.

Then in 1877, French Canadian families in Faribault petitioned the bishop and received permission to start their own parish. Called Sacred Heart, it was built on land purchased at Sixth Street and Fourth Avenue Northwest.

Tuesday: Parishioners recall the history of Faribault's Catholic churches.

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-- Pauline Schreiber can be reached at 333-3127 or pschreiber@faribault.com.

© 2014 Southernminn.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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