History of St. Mary Catholic Church-Williams, Iowa
For over 125 years, the “Bells of St. Mary” have been tolling for Catholic families in
and around Williams. Today they continue to ring for approximately 80 families who
live in or near Alden, Dows, Ellsworth, Story City, Radcliffe and Webster City as well
The first arrivals were attracted to the area by work opportunities found in
construction of the Illinois Central Railroad, completed in 1869, from Iowa Falls to Ft.
Dodge, which was also along the stage coach route. In May 1869 the Holy Sacrifice
of the Mass was first offered in Hamilton County in the Bernard Kelly home in
Webster City for all Catholics in the surrounding area by a Father Butler from Ft.
Dodge. Williams Catholics also remember Mass being offered in the farm home of
Andrew and Mary Smith between Williams and Blairsburg, which was also on the
stage coach route.
A number of current members of St Mary’s are fifth and sixth generation
descendants of those working families who opted to remain in the area upon the
completion of the railroad and who became the nucleus of the St. Mary parish. Most
became farmers or railroad section hands.
From 1870 through 1880, the first resident pastor at Ackley had a territoriallyextensive
parish covering seventy square miles. He was Peter J. O’Dowd (1846-
1912), who not only met the spiritual needs of Williams Catholics but those living in
Parkersburg, Hampton, Eldora, Iowa Falls, Belmond, Eagle Grove and Webster City.
Mass in Williams was offered in homes until 1875, at which time the good mix of
Irish and Germans built a small frame church from their meager resources, on an
acre of land donated by Lawrence and Ann McCue.
St. Mary’s became an out mission of Webster City as soon as a resident pastor was
established there in 1881. Rev. Eugene O’Keefe ministered also to Williams and
Belmond. He was followed by Rev. Thomas Mulvehill and Rev. James Brennan (1852-
1904) until 1895 when a violent windstorm, thought to be a cyclone, leveled the
small church. In the meantime, there had been an influx of settlers from eastern
Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois. Because the membership had outgrown the original
structure, a request was made to the first Archbishop of Dubuque, John Hennessy, to
appoint a resident pastor to help them plan and construct a new and larger church as
well as a rectory. He responded favorably by appointing Rev. Jacob A. Kurz (1863-
As St. Mary’s first resident pastor, he was a native son of Dubuque and even though
in poor health, he was capable and zealous in his effort to oversee the building of a
larger, more substantial church and rectory. With the cooperation and assistance of
parishioners, the venture was successful. Arriving in 1895, he left two years later in
1897. The following year, at age 35, he died.
The first baptism in the new church was in September 1895, for Teresa Caroline
daughter of Francis and Marie (Knoll) Holdgrafer. The first funeral was for Michael
Brady in April 1896. He was the father of Mary Brady whose wedding to Frank
Murphy was to be the first in the new church just a month later in May. Although
these are the first to be recorded, there may have been other unreported events
From 1897-1907 Rev. John J. Collins (1868-1942) was assigned as pastor. During
his 10 years as St. Mary’s pastor an interesting confrontation occurred. Upon the
death of Archbishop Hennessy in 1900, the second Archbishop appointed was John
Joseph Keane, who had been the first rector of Catholic University. Apparently the
promise made earlier by Hennessy to send a German priest to Williams in return for
large monetary donations made by a group of German Catholics to finance the new
church and rectory had not materialized. Consequently, an excerpt relating to this
event appears in the book, Seed/Harvest, the History of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.
It was published in 1987 to commemorate the 150th Jubilee and it reads as follows:
“Irish-German tensions surfaced in a much more substantial fashion in early 1901
when Keane was named defendant in a civil suit brought by representatives of the
German community in Williams, Iowa, in district court in Webster City, Iowa.
Apparently the church building in Williams had been destroyed in 1895 by a violent
windstorm and several of the plaintiffs had contributed large sums of money to
rebuild, not only the church but the pastor’s house. They had given the money with
the understanding that a German-speaking priest would be sent to their parish, as
they contended Archbishop Hennessy had promised them. As no German priest had
yet been dispatched, the suit sought reimbursement for the contributions they had
made. After initially winning the case Keane was forced to pay the claim in 1905
following an appeal.”
For 21 years, Father O’Meara (1869-1937) was St. Mary’s shepherd. By 1913,
membership had expanded even more. The existing structure, as a result was
enlarged to the south by extending the center aisle and adding a new sanctuary with
sacristies on either side. Additional land had been secured at which time landscaping
of the property greatly improved its appearance. Evergreen trees were planted in
front of the rectory.
Inside, a modern heating plant was installed and beautiful stained glass replaced the
plate glass windows. Parish members or groups gifted at least twenty-one of the
total twenty-three windows.
Note of interest: In 1910, when Pope Pius X lowered the age to 7 for receiving the
Holy Eucharist, the following year there were 44 First Communicants at St. Mary’s.
And in 1922, Father O’Meara baptized 21 babies.
For nine years Rev. Edmund O’Donnell (1882-1954) served St. Mary’s parishioners.
During the summer of 1928, a basement was dug under part of the church to
provide space for a parish hall. When the exterior of the church was enhanced with
brick veneer and asbestos shingles applied to the roof, the building appeared to be
The interior frescoed and rectory repairs were made. With the arrival of the Great
Depression, all physical improvements came to a halt.
Mrs. Stoneman was Father O’Donnell’s housekeeper.
During Father O’Donnell’s term in Williams, he celebrated his Silver Jubilee in the
It was in 1937 that St. Mary’s first native son was ordained a priest, a Mary Knoll
missionary. Rev. Vincent William Walsh (1910-1979) celebrated his First Solemn
High Mass in Williams.
Beginning in 1937, Father Frederick W. McKinley (1879-1962) served St. Mary’s for
21 years during which time many changes were made. In 1940, the small basement
was enlarged to the east to provide additional room for social activities.
The church kitchen was remodeled, built-in cupboards were added and oil heat
replaced the coal furnace. In 1950, an electric organ was purchased for the choir loft.
The church and rectory were redecorated.
Daily Mass was said in the chapel, which now serves as the council room in the
church hall. The chapel altar was the one originally used in the first church.
Father was well-known as a dog lover, thus two dogs of considerable size lived on
the back porch of the rectory. He is also remembered for his love of card playing and
card parties. Some parishioners still remember expecting and getting some of the
nickels he handed out to them as children following Sunday Masses.
From St. Mary’s he retired to a home in Rockwell where he lived with his sister until
his death four years later.
During this time period, Rev. John Stark (1925-1999), son of Mr. and Mrs. Max
Stark, was ordained in 1957 in Dubuque.
Born in 1925, he lived in Williams where he made his First Communion. He was
confirmed in Webster City. Father Stark’s death came December 6, 1999.
Coming from a German-speaking parish after it merged with another parish in
Independence, Father Henry P. Nosbisch (1894-1970) guided St. Mary’s flock for
Initially he remodeled the rectory. Five years later in 1963, the $4,700 profit realized
from St. Mary’s food stand sponsored for the Farm Progress Show held near
Blairsburg was spent to redesign and remodel the church kitchen and dining hall. In
1964, the church proper was redecorated. Before leaving Williams for his new
assignment in St. Ansgar, he presented us with the Stations of the Cross, currently
Two housekeepers during his term were Anneta Jansen, presently retired and living
in Marshalltown and his niece, Anna Nosbisch.
During Rev. Francis J. McEnany’s (1909-1988) four years in Williams, it was decided
to purchase carpeting and new pews. A sound system was also ordered.
He also established a Parish Activity Committee in 1966-67 to be responsible for the
fundraising, and a Board of Education in 1967-68 in accordance with recommendations from the Archdiocesan office in Dubuque.
Soon after, Father McEnany was transferred.
Father John J. Brickley (1909-1998) served a four year term at St. Mary’s. During
that time the main altar and two side altars were replaced with new furnishings, but
not without controversy. The sanctuary and church proper were redecorated. The
previously ordered carpeting, pews and sound system were installed as was a new
baptismal font between 1969 and 1971. There were furnace repairs in the church
and house and the church hall was repainted. A new front entrance was built.
Electrical heating of the new steps to melt ice in the winter proved to be unsuccessful
after a period of time.
Protective glass and screens were added to safeguard the 23 stained glass windows.
These improvements were made possible through a $22,000 donation from the
Henry Holdgrafer estate as well as from church funds. However, in 1970 there was
still a $4,000 balance. But in 1972, after the church ceiling was insulated, $1,000 of
the bequest remained.
It is thought that in about 1971, Saturday evening Masses were scheduled for the
first time with the intention of accommodating any of the 98 families registered at
that time who were unable to attend Sunday Mass.
In July, 1971, the Parish Activities Committee evolved into the original Parish Council
of ten members with equal numbers of men and women, although this has not been
adhered to in recent years. With the advent of the Parish Council, there was no
longer a need for the pastor to appoint two trustees to help with decisions of church
business, so that assignment was eliminated.
While in Williams, Father’s housekeeper was Mrs. Ella Schultingkemper. Small
wonder she was best known as Ella.
Father Brickley left for his new pastorate in 1973 at Britt. His burial in October, 1998,
was also in Britt.
In September, 1973, Father Carl Manternach added St. Mary’s to the other two
parishes he was serving at St.’s Peter and Paul in Gilbert and Good Shepard at
Jewell. Until June, he wheeled in on his motorcycle as interim pastor to answer our
spiritual needs on a regular basis.
Following 14 years as a missionary at San Raphael, Cochabamba, Bolivia, Father
John P. Smith arrived in Williams with his sole possessions in a couple of suitcases.
His arrival coincided with plans to celebrate St Mary’s Centennial on August 15,
1975, Feast of the Assumption of The Blessed Virgin. It was a major project so his
guidance and organization were greatly appreciated as were his compassion and
deep spirituality. Friends, former pastors and parishioners joined members for the
special day. The Notre Dame Mass was beautifully sung by the choir, aided by
talented children in the parish who had returned for the celebration. Following the
Mass a pot luck dinner was served in the city park. Many viewed the historical exhibit
displayed in the church hall. Mementoes available of the event were miniature silver
spoons and a parish pictorial booklet.
During his stay in Williams, Father updated the parish census by making 105 home
visits. He also was an avid gardener who generously shared the fruits of his labor.
It should be noted that not long before his arrival, Good Shepard at Jewell had
become an out mission of St. Mary’s, so Father Smith was well-prepared to minister
to the group of Spanish-speaking parishioners as a result of his time in South
In preparation for the 100 year festivities the rectory was painted a sunny yellow – a
change from the traditional white. Trees were planted and Angelus bells were
installed in the belfry as a memorial for Alan Dagit, four-year-old son of Dorian and
Eileen Dagit, following his accidental death.
As Father attempted to justify his life in this country as compared to the needs of the
Bolivian natives, he was unable to do so. In October, 1975, he resigned and returned
to Bolivia. While ministering there a second time, the results of serious injuries from
an accident were cause for him to return to the States.
From October, 1975 to March 1976, Father Carl Manternach returned to St. Mary for
nine months. When he was assigned to Lansing in northeast Iowa, Rev. Dave
Manders from St. Cecilia’s at Ames and St’s. Peter and Paul at Gilbert responded to
St. Mary’s spiritual needs. Through July he was assisted by Fathers James Supple,
Patrick Geary and Msgr. Tarrant, all of Ames.
For six years Father Clarence Kruse served as pastor for both St. Mary’s and Good
Shepherd, the outmission at Jewell. During his term, many improvements were
made by Father using his carpentry and woodworking skills to improve the church
hall. The old chapel was converted to a conference room, the walls in the church hall
were paneled and the wall benches were carpeted in 1980. The previous year a new
furnace and air-conditioning system had been installed. In 1980, Father moved into
a home on the southwest edge of Williams in preparation for the construction of a
new rectory which was to include a CCD center in the lower level. At this time the
church interior was redecorated, the east sacristy used by Mass servers was
converted to a reconciliation room.
The old rectory was torn down and burned. Ground was broken in May. The Stober
Construction Company from Ames held the contract to build the 32’ x 84’ structure
for $145,000. The building committee consisted of Craig Classon, Dennis Doolittle,
Francis Krieger, Father Kruse, Joan Moore, Wayne Neuman, John Ricke and Lauren
A new sidewalk was poured between the church and rectory. On November 1, 1981
the combination rectory/CCD center was dedicated and blessed by Bishop Dunn
following an 11 o’clock Mass. A potluck dinner for the congregation was followed by
an afternoon open house for the community, which was well-attended.
Although Father Kruse became involved in community and county activities, he found
time to initiate the first four Eucharistic ministers and the usher program. The
Christian Family Movement (CFM) was introduced and monthly meetings were held
but the group is no longer active. A parish telephone tree was established.
In July 1982, Father Kruse exchanged locations with Father Louis Zee who came to
St. Mary’s from Parkersburg.
Soon after his arrival, Father Louis Zee and the Council were instrumental in
purchasing additional property to the east of the church from parishioners, William
and Bernadette Schnepf. A couple of vacant lots to the south were also purchased
from Jan Crosby to provide ample space for a parking lot. The house on the east
section was torn down and burned.
In 1984, only three years after the completion of the beautiful brick rectory/CCD
center, the parish celebrated the burning of the mortgage by Father Louis. Although
members were reminded that a $7 weekly donation was necessary from each family
just to maintain the budget, the parishioners were most generous in this building
endeavor in an effort to keep St. Mary’s debt-free.
The same year Father Louis’ cousin, Cecilia Zheng, arrived from China, with his
assistance in arrangements, to attend Loras College in Dubuque. Staying at the
rectory between college terms, Cecilia came to know St. Mary’s as her home away
from home. In return, her willingness to share her musical talent – piano – was a
delight to all for four years.
Father was blessed later in 1984 with a six-month visit from his father Joseph, also
from China. It was only the second time in 36 years they had been together. He and
his family had no contact with each other for 30 years after he left Communist china
in 1949 as a teenager.
Philip Zee, son of Father’s younger sister, Theresa, also spent time in Williams before
and during his college years at Loras and later at Iowa University. To improve his
English he attended Northeast Hamilton a semester before going to Dubuque. The
presence of these three family members provided an interesting cultural
enlightenment for the parish that year.
During a month in the summer of 1986, the parish also enjoyed the presence and
work of Deacon Steve Harrington before his 1987 ordination. His untimely death
occurred in 1991. He was born in 1961.
A special privilege came to the Parish when St. Mary’s second native son, Rick Dagit,
offered his First Mass in Williams on May 26, 1986, following ordination in Dubuque
two days earlier.
His deaconate ordination by Bishop Dunn occurred at St. Mary’s in December, 1985.
Additional church improvements had been made in preparation for the influx of
visitors expected for Father Rick’s first Mass. They included wiring, improved
drainage, planter construction, new church sign and doors installed among other
improvements. A length of pews had been removed from the front of the church to
allow more space for weddings and now several were eliminated from the back to
provide more space needed at times of funerals.
In 1984, Father Zee’s 25th anniversary of ordination was cause for a parish
celebration. And in 1987, the 150th Jubilee of the Archdiocese of Dubuque was
That same year, Father was assigned to the parish in Mount Vernon.
As a first-time pastor at Williams and Jewell, Father Carl Ries and the council
addressed the need to build a new entrance on the east side of the church so as to
render it handicap-accessible to both levels. A lift was installed and the parking lot to
the east was completed. At the same time the bell tower was repaired and all wood
trim and siding were painted. The kitchen entrance was remodeled and windows and
doors were replaced. Most of the carpentry was done by Kenny Bryan and son, Tom.
Church ceiling fans were added.
Once again families were encouraged to raise their weekly donation for church
support by $1 – for a total of $8 to meet expenses.
A prayer power line was revised. The three-year RENEW program was initiated with
five sessions scheduled during that time for various small groups meeting weekly
with assigned leaders.
Daily Mass continued to be offered downstairs in the new rectory chapel. Several lay
leaders were available for daily Eucharistic services in Father Carl’s absence. And
several Eucharistic ministers carried the Holy Eucharist on a regular basis to shutins.
The fall of 1990 found Father taking sabbatical at Notre Dame University – “not to
play football” as he said, but “to study theology.”
Through his involvement with the parish youth, whether it be skiing, swimming,
dancing or other special activities, his concern for the young people was evident.
Father Carl left Williams to become pastor of St. Joseph Church in Mason City.
Arriving the fall of 1991, Father Philip F. Recker’s strengths were soon revealed as an
accomplished pianist/vocalist and as a homilist.
And with his desire for daily Mass to be offered in the church proper, the rectory
chapel was converted to another classroom.
After years of being concealed, two stained glass windows were uncovered on either
side of the altar. They were oak-framed to match other stained glass windows. The
center front tabernacle was offset to the right of the main altar.
A new heating system replaced the old one and in 1992, the church was redecorated
and three new storm doors were added to the rectory.
Signs of the times brought yet another suggestion: a $10 donation per family on a
weekly basis would keep the parish afloat.
When Father Raymond A Burkle arrived in Williams, he brought with him the
technological age by way of his computer and his skills to operate it. He hosted a
program on the internet entitled “Father B’s Catholic Corner”, which offered
opportunities for enriching one’s faith.
In response to the scarcity of priests and a decrease in membership, St. Mary’s at
Williams came full circle in the year 2000. Once again it became an outmission of
Webster City through the process of clustering, as it was in the late 1800’s.
In July of 2000 Pastor, Father John R. Flaherty, was assigned. Fr. Jack shared his
time between the Parishes of St. Thomas Aquinas in Webster City and St Mary’s.
In July 2006 St. Mary’s newest Pastor, Father Scott Boone was assigned. Fr. Scott
continues to share the duties of both the St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Mary Parishes.