A Condensed History of St. Michael’s Parish
On August 31, 1866 , Bishop Thomas L. Grace purchased land on Parnell Street on the lower West Side of St. Paul for the purpose of building a new church on that side of the Mississippi River . The immigrant Irish Catholic families had to cross the Wabasha Street toll bridge at the cost of $1 (a day’s wages) in order to attend Mass.
Around Christmas 1866, Holy Mass was first celebrated in the new St. Michael’s Church. The church was dedicated on the feast of St. Michael, September 29, 1867.
As pastor of the Cathedral of St. Paul, Father John Ireland (later to become the first Archbishop of the diocese) directed various assistant pastors to serve the new St. Michael’s Church – a mission church of the Cathedral.
In 1882, Father Peter Gallagher, who had tended St. Michael’s parish as an assistant at the Cathedral, became the first resident pastor of St. Michael’s. Father Gallagher built a new St. Michael’s Church and used the old wooden church as a school. St. Michael School began classes in 1884 with sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet, who walked each day from their convent at 10th and Robert Street , near St. Joseph ‘s Hospital. He started the Altar and Rosary Society and the St. Vincent De Paul Society at St. Michael’s. The German speaking Catholics of the West Side soon needed their own church, so in 1886, St. Michael’s sister parish of St. Matthew’s was founded.
In May of 1887, Archbishop Ireland insisted that the parish provide a convent. On January 20, 1888 , fire destroyed the first church, which was now the school building. Father Gallagher utilized the basement and sacristy of St. Michael’s Church to return children to their classes.
Father Patrick O’Neill was appointed pastor of St. Michael’s Church and began his duties on April 3, 1888 . Since St. Michael’s was the only Catholic church south of the river, Father Patrick also ministered to South St. Paul Catholics until 1895, when St. Augustine ‘s was founded. He oversaw the building of a new school for St. Michael’s, a permanent rectory, and expanded the “new” church to accommodate the more than five hundred families in the parish. The old rectory became a convent for the sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet, who finally had a home of their own after 16 years of traveling across the river.
In the early 1900s, there had been a large immigration of Catholics from Lebanon , many of whom attended St. Michael’s. Father Patrick arranged for the priest from St. Maron in Minneapolis to come to St. Michael’s every Saturday evening to say a Mass of the Maronite rite in the basement chapel of St. Michael’s Church. This continued until 1917, when this congregation purchased a small Protestant church and began Holy Family Parish.
Father Patrick organized the Holy Name Society, the very first to be chartered in the Archdiocese of St. Paul, and the 2nd chartered in the United States . During the Depression, Father Patrick always had a second collection, the sole purpose of which was the St. Vincent De Paul Society fund, for the poor of the parish. Two chapters of the Hibernians met at St. Michael’s. Some of their names were inscribed on the colored windows of the old St. Michael’s Church. In 1926, Father Patrick became a domestic prelate and was named Vicar General to Archbishop Austin Dowling. He would now be known as Monsignor O’Neill.
Father John O’Neill, who was Father Patrick O’Neill’s nephew, came to Minnesota from Ireland in 1915 and was ordained at the St. Paul Seminary on June 8, 1916 . He celebrated his First Solemn High Mass in St. Michael’s Church on June 9, 1916 , also the year of the 50th anniversary of St. Michael’s parish. He remained at St. Michael’s as assistant to Father Patrick. In 1928, Father John’s younger brother, The Reverend Peter O’Neill, celebrated his first Solemn High Mass at St. Michael’s Church. Father Peter would go on to lead Guardian Angels Parish in Lake Elmo (now Oakdale) for many years until his death.
The Depression saw the influx of immigrants from Mexico . They needed a Spanish-speaking priest, so in 1931, Our Lady of Guadalupe was founded. This was the fourth parish to be carved from St. Michael’s membership. In 1942, St. Joseph ‘s Parish was founded, which drew from many of the new families in West St. Paul . During all this time, Father John, while still only assistant pastor, shouldered most of the work of St. Michael’s. By the beginning of World War II, it was obvious that Monsignor O’Neill’s health was failing. He remained at St. Michael’s still saying Mass, even though it was difficult for him to stand. He offered the last Mass of his life on July 2, 1943 . In the fall of 1943, he was taken to St. Joseph ‘s Hospital and died there on February 12, 1944 . Monsignor O’Neill had been a priest for 60 years, and pastor of St. Michael’s for 56 years. Shortly after Monsignor O’Neill’s death, Archbishop Murray appointed Father John O’Neill pastor of St. Michael’s Parish.
With the end of World War II, St. Michael’s, along with the whole country, experienced a great period of change. Within a few blocks of St. Michael’s were St. Matthew’s, Holy Family, and Our Lady of Guadalupe Churches. The heart of the old “flats” was decaying, and the people of St. Michael’s parish were moving up the hill. Father John made the decision that St. Michael’s would follow its people. In May 1953, Father John, with the approval of Archbishop Murray, bought the first part of the property at the east end of Annapolis Street at the price of $17,000. This was enough land on which to build a new church-school combination and a convent. An additional $60,000 was spent to purchase the additional property which now consists of the entire block.
The simple building design envisioned a church and school. Groundbreaking for the present church and school was held on March 12, 1954 , and was dedicated in June 1955. It included a school, a convent for the sisters, and in 1957, a rectory for the priests. The school had 14 classrooms, a cafeteria, library, offices and an auditorium that served as a temporary chapel. The plans for the total development of the new St. Michael’s “on-the-hill” included the building of a separate church as well as the present facilities but the church construction was put on hold. At the time, it was decided to use the school gymnasium as a “temporary chapel” and build the final church sometime in the future.
The old St. Michael’s church remained in operation for those who wanted to stay. This old church saw two more great events. In 1961, Father Peter Fleming said his First Mass at old St. Michael’s. This was special, because Father Fleming was the fourth son from one family to celebrate his first Mass at St. Michael’s. The second great event took place on the occasion of the parish Centennial in 1966, when Father John O’Neill mounted the steps of the same altar at which he said his First Solemn Mass to say a Mass of thanksgiving on the occasion of his fiftieth year as a priest and his fiftieth year at St. Michael’s. Father John remained at St. Michael’s until his death on February 26, 1967 .
Father John O’Neill was succeeded by Father Francis Dudley. Father Dudley implemented the changes in the church and liturgy following the directives of the Second Vatican Council. In the late 1960s, Mass was still celebrated in both locations. When St. Matthew’s burned down in the late 1960s, St. Michael’s lent the use of the old church to them until their new one was built. Later, the St. Paul housing authority approached St. Michael’s about purchasing the property for a new housing development. Father Dudley negotiated the sale of the property and the church was scheduled for demolition. Prior to the demolition, Father Dudley photographed the entire inside of the church. The stained glass windows, the statue of St. Michael, the presider’s chair, and the bell from the bell tower were among the items salvaged from the old church. The tower from the old St. Michael’s Church is still standing on the site of the Torre de San Miguel housing development. In 1969, Father Dudley oversaw the construction of the new Science Room and John O’Neill Library for the school.
On September 27, 1981 , a great celebration was held commemorating the 115th anniversary of St. Michael’s Parish. Monsignor Francis Fleming (one of the sons of the parish) delivered the homily, which was a recap of St. Michael’s history and culture. He noted that St. Michael’s culture grew out of the Irish heritage created by Father Patrick and Father John. This was a culture that tended to be conservative and traditional, with a great love of the priesthood, the Pope, and the Mass. It was also a culture that welcomed every new ethnic group that came into the area. He summed up that St. Michael’s culture was “people of God working effectively with the pastor and leadership of the parish”. St. Michael’s continues to have those same values and culture today.
Father Dudley retired as pastor in 1989 after 22 years of service to our parish. He passed on to his eternal reward on January 26, 2000 .
In 1989, Father Gerald Dvorak was assigned to St. Michael’s. He headed a Carmelite community of men preparing for the priesthood, known as the Little Brothers of Carmel. He was also the spiritual director for a new group of 3 rd Order Lay Carmelites at St. Michael’s. Since there were no longer any nuns occupying the convent, Father Jerry converted it into a rectory and parish offices and housing for the Little Brothers of Carmel. In 1992, Father Jerry initiated Perpetual Adoration at St. Michael’s. The Chapel of Our Lady of the Angels and a reading room were constructed in the lower level of the original rectory. Father Jerry is an avid collector of crèches, and each year during Advent he would display the many crèches from around the world for the parishioners and community to view and enjoy. In 1991, a bell tower was constructed using the bell saved from the “old” church. During Father Jerry’s time at St. Michaels, the stained glass windows from the “old” church that had been in storage for over 35 years were restored and displayed through out the current church. On September 3, 2002 , Father Jerry was assigned as pastor to St. Joseph ’s Parish in Hopkins . The Little Brothers of Carmel followed Father Jerry to Hopkins .
Father Timothy Deutsch was appointed as parish administrator in November 2002. He took up residence in the original rectory. Father Deutsch started the project of remodeling the old convent into the Parish Center and moved the Perpetual Adoration Chapel into the original convent chapel. He returned to his home diocese of Duluth in March 2003.
Father Kenneth O’Hotto, who served as a deacon at St. Michael’s prior to his ordination in 1980, was appointed our new pastor and was welcomed on May 13th, 2003 . He has brought to our parish a sense of renewal and revitalization as we continue the legacy of so many that worked to preserve and protect St. Michael’s Parish throughout its long history.