“The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.” This quote of America’s first President, George Washington, must have rung true with many European immigrants wishing to improve life for themselves and their families. During the infancy of the United States, in the course of a hundred years, 1820-1920, America attracted 33.6 million immigrants to its shores!
Initially, immigrants settled along the populated East Coast of the United States. Walking through neighborhoods, nineteenth century visitors marveled at the number of languages spoken, the varied ethnicities, and the diversified cultures that shared a common vision of this welcoming nation.
With time, these immigrants would set out to participate in the American dream. The Westward expansion grew, and with it, many stories were written and told of the Oregon Trail migration, more correctly known as the Oregon-California Trail migration. This trail was a 2,170-mile route from present day Missouri to Oregon and California that enabled the early pioneers to migrate to the western United States. Before the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, it is estimated that over 500,000 people made the trip in covered wagons pulled by mule and oxen.
With a burgeoning population, meeting the spiritual needs of the settlers became a concern. Within the Roman Catholic tradition, priests and religious were brought over to this new land to meet the spiritual requirements of this exploding population. When these early pioneers reached about one-third along the route, the pioneers would pass the landmarks of Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff in the North Platte River Valley Area. Eventually, the area was settled, and the local population began to grow – and so did the religious needs of these early settlers. This begins the history of the Roman Catholicism in the North Platte River Valley. This is the beginning of our shared history.
“The First Mass in the Nebraska territory was offered with this parish – Three miles southwest of Horse Creek – September 14, 1851 by Father Peirre DeSmet, S.J.” – This erected monument sits outside the doors of St. Ann’s Catholic Church in present day Morrill, Nebraska. It would be almost 50 years later, in the year 1903, after the lengthy reign of Pope Leo XIII had just ended and the reign of Pope Pius X had just begun, that a growing Catholic community straddling the North Platte river and living in the shadow of Scotts Bluff was about to become a parish.
“A Place to Call Home”
In the year 1900, Father John Devane, who was the pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Sidney, began coming regularly to Scottsbluff and Gering. Under his supervision, the first Catholic church, St. Johns, was built in 1903 at a cost of $600.00. It stood at the corner of First Avenue and 17th Street and was the first Catholic Church in Scotts Bluff County. St. John’s continued as a mission of Sidney until October 5, 1912, when Bishop Richard Scannell of the Diocese of Omaha established it as a parish and appointed Father T.J. O’Bryne as the first pastor. Father O’Bryne was assisted by Father W.P. Sloan (1915-1916), Father M.L. Ballou (1916-1917), Father M.A. Lawlwer (1917-1918), and Father C.J. Hollie (1918-1919). During these early years, the Scottsbluff priests were circuit riders and traveled to the mission and neighboring communities of Mitchell, Bridgeport, Lisco, and Oshkosh.
Prior to the appointment of Father O’Bryne, Catholics of Scottsbluff had purchased lots at the corner of 20th Street and 1st Avenue, considering this an ideal location for a new church and rectory. Here a rectory was built in 1914. Later, however, when plans for a new church were being made, a tract on the ‘northern outskirts’ of the city at 23rd Street and 3rd Avenue was donated by William Frank of Grand Island. The earlier property, with the exception of the rectory, was sold to help pay for the new church. A contract was awarded on March 9, 1917 to O.S. Sigler to erect a 50 by 100 foot church on the present site at a cost between $30,000 and $35,000. The spire atop the 118-foot steeple of St. Agnes Church has been a landmark of the significant growth of the Catholic faith in Scottsbluff for a century. The new church was dedicated in April of 1919.
The name – St. John’s – remains somewhat of a mystery. Although mentioned in early writings as the first Catholic Church in Scottsbluff, it had been forgotten until “St. John” was found inscribed on the back side of the St. Agnes Cornerstone, which was set in July of 1917. Contractors beginning the renovation of the present church found the cornerstone and had to remove it for the new entrance and Gathering Space addition in the year 2000. There is speculation that during the building of the present church, St. John’s Lutheran Church was being built and so the name was changed to avoid confusion between the two communities.
“Within Our Home”
The history of Catholic sacred architecture, at least for the first 1,900 years, was concerned with the question of how to express something quite beyond words, quite beyond any symbolic structure, quite beyond our imagination. St. Paul sums it up when he wrote ‘Eye has not seen, not ear has heard…’(1 Cor. 2:9). This immediately raises the question as to how immaterial reality – that is to say, spiritual things – can be conveyed to us who live our lives in the material world. The church instructs us that “Church buildings are to be signs and symbols of heavenly things.”
At the turn of the nineteenth century, Neo-gothic was the predominant architectural design. Pointed arches, ribbed vaulting, flying buttress and other features previously known in Gothic church buildings lay the groundwork for the St. Agnes Church. This is why during the 2000 renovation ‘great effort was expressed to preserve and enhance the neo-gothic design of the church. The painting motif has brought out the color in both the stained-glass windows and the Stations of the Cross. The addition of the capitols has allowed us to emphasize the vaulted ceilings with lights. The design and choice of materials have kept the new gathering space as an integral part of the original structure.’
“The Clergy of the Parish”
Father Timothy P. Molony was appointed to succeed Father O’Byrne as pastor of St. Agnes. It was under Father Molony’s 40 year pastorate that the parish’s large debt was retired with a final payment of $513.75 made on August 23, 1937. The present day parish office and rectory were built in 1954, and St. Agnes Catholic School construction began in 1955 (see school section). Father Molony’s work and ministry brought a strong and faith-filled foundation to Catholics all over the North Platte River Valley. His death, three days after Christmas of 1958, left a notable mark in St. Agnes’ history.
After the death of Fr. Molony, Father James Whalen was appointed the third pastor of St. Agnes on January 31, 1959 and served until June 30, 1970. During Father Whalen’s tenure, the church and school communities continued to grow. The addition of the Gymnasium & Stage was built, completing the physical plant. Associate pastors during these years were Fr. Gerald Carlson (1963-1964), Father Paul Curro (1965), and Monsignor Thomas Siudowski (1965-1970). Father Walter Phelan was named pastor in June 1970 through June 1972.
To succeed Father Phalen, Father Donald O’Brien was appointed pastor in June 1972 and served through June 1981. In those years, the church was renovated and air conditioned. The basement, the center of many parish activities, was also improved and modernized.
During the 1980’s, Fr. Robert Karnish added the south addition of the church. The drive up entrance was a welcome addition to the church building – making it relatively easy for older members of the parish to enter and exit with minimal exertion.
Fr. Charles Torpey became the 7th pastor of St. Agnes in July of 1988. Following Fr. Torpey was Fr. James O’Kane. It was under O’Kane’s pastorate that structural deficiencies became evident. During deliberations, construction of a new building was never an option; instead, the desire was to preserve the original gothic architectural features of St. Agnes highlighted by a system of delicate stained glass windows, which portray important Saints and events in the growth of Catholicism.
Succeeding Father O’Kane was Father Donald Buhrman who arrived in July of 2003. Father Buhrman paid off the debt owed through the 1.5 million dollar renovation. In 2009, current pastor, Father Vince Parsons arrived at St. Agnes.
Religious sisters serving as pastoral ministers in the parish over the years have been Sr. Mary Walling, Sr. Marcianne Romero, Sr. Lucille Beaulieu, Sr. Rosemary Carraher, and Sr. Joanna Costello from the Franciscan Order, Sr. Christina Meyer, and current pastoral minister, Sr. Vera Meis from Sisters of St. Joseph in Concordia.
“St. Agnes School”
As earlier stated, Fr. Molony’s influence on St. Agnes can still be measured some 60 years after his death. The cornerstone for St. Agnes School was laid by the Bishop John Paschang in 1955. It was originally staffed by the Sisters of St. Francis of Marycrest in Denver and was free to all the children being totally supported by the parish.
Father Molony’s vision of opening a Catholic school in Scottsbluff became a reality on September 6, 1955 when the doors were opened with 89 children enrolled with two teachers. Grades 1st through 3rd were on the first floor, and the children attended school while the rest of the building was being finished.
Each year a classroom was added, so by September of 1960, the school had 1st through 8th grades and 247 registered students. The first 8th grade graduating class had twenty-one students. To increase attendance, St. Agnes Church along with Our Lady of Guadalupe and Christ the King Catholic Church purchased a school bus with 3000 filled books of ‘Gold Stamps.’ The bus traveled between the three communities to transport students to and from school.
One of the earliest, and still present, fundraisers to generate money for the school is the Penny Carnival. The first Penny Carnival was held on October 19, 1963 – hosted by parents, faculty, and supporters of the school. Today, in its 53rd year, the Penny Carnival continues to be a source of much needed revenue for the operations of the school.
On March 8, 1968, the official groundbreaking of the gymatorium (a gymnasium and stage) was added on the north side of the school. It housed a gym, stages, showers in the basement and a fully equipped kitchen to be used by the school and parish.
During this time, St. Agnes had a boys’ basketball team and a girls’ volleyball team, which participated in games with the rural schools within the Scottsbluff valley area.
In 1968, the 7th and 8th grades were dropped and the students went instead to Scottsbluff Junior High. In 1980, St. Agnes added a Kindergarten class and had 33 children in the first class. In 1985, 6th grade was dropped as the Scottsbluff Public Schools went to the Middle School concept.
In 1984, the St. Agnes School Foundation was started by a group of business minded parishioners to insure the long term financial stability for St. Agnes Catholic School. The Foundation Board is made up of parishioners of St. Agnes Church and supporters of St. Agnes School. In 2011, the first annual “Premiere” event began at the Gering Civic Center. David and Kerri Schaff were the founders of the event, and the monies raised support special projects and long-term growth for the future of St. Agnes School.
In 2010, St. Agnes added the Pre-School and After 3 programs to its elementary system. Early childhood development is a key component to building a solid foundation throughout the primary years of a child.
Over the years, the staff has transitioned from religious sisters to professional lay teachers. At present, St. Agnes Catholic School has 135 students and 10 full time and 6 part-time teachers and staff.
“Working from Our Home”
Throughout the years, many organizations have developed because of the faith-filled and dedicated parishioners of St. Agnes. One example is the local council of the Knights of Columbus that dates its beginning to 1928. During those depression years, the local council gave $5 monthly to offset the expense of the church gas and electric bills. One parishioner recalls that money was so tight in those days that Fr. Molony was often seen walking down the railroad tracks collecting overthrown coal from the trains for heating the church! Recently, the Knights celebrated 80+ years of hosting the parish picnic that includes the children from St. Joseph’s Children Home in Torrington. Their Catholic witness continues to inspire the younger generation about service, fraternity, and faith.
St. Agnes Altar Society continues its work and witness to the parish community. Throughout the years, the women of the parish have done so much to enhance our worship and community. Through fundraisers, manual labor, fall suppers, numerous receptions, funeral dinners, and so much more, their work is inspiring and generous.
Recognizing the need in our area, Valley Christian Neighbors in Need (VCNIN) was formed in 1983 under the direction of Rev. Robert Karnish. At that time, food and clothing was distributed to those in need with the help of many volunteers. Polly Roland and Betty Schmitz were organizers who coordinated the efforts of VCNIN. Many stories have been told about the ‘bag sales’ and memorable encounters in ministry they have experienced. Also in that same year, Christmas was enhanced for 55 families with the distribution of food baskets. Today, due to the hard work of faithful volunteers, VCNIN continues to do outreach ministry in varying ways – distribution of food, assistance in rent, heating, electric, medicine, and gasoline for medically necessary travel.
Recognizing the need to help support the poorest of the poor in the world, St. Agnes Church has had a 30+ year relationship with La Tourtue Paroisse de la Nativite Catholic Church in the Diocese of Port de Paix in Haiti. In addition to our financial assistance to Haiti, in 2012, St. Agnes Church established relations with St. John the Baptist Church and School in Mityana, Uganda (in Africa). Rev. Jude Ssenngendo, current pastor, is a close friend of St. Agnes Parish and is our liason between the two continents.
The Catholic Daughters of the Americas has a long standing history in the United States. It was founded in 1903 by the Knights of Columbus in Utica, New York with the principles of “Unity and Charity”. The local Court of St. Jude #2053, was established on April 20, 1972 and continues to meet 10 months out of each year. The sale of religious articles and other projects provide income to support five national charities, support for seminarians and the St. Agnes’ summer bible school program.
The music ministry program has been a stalwart ministry within our community of St. Agnes. Over the years, numerous talented people have given of their time and talent to its existence. Music directors such as Michael Fangman, Roy Doerfler, Theresa Rezac and presently, Chris Wolf have fostered the programs growth. Many accompanists and cantors have also filled the church with beautiful sounds over the years: Jim and Iris Macken, Yvonne (Ostry) Merrigan, Louis Kent and Nita Cantril – just to name a few. We recognize all those who have given of their time and talent in this ministry over the years – and although not listed by name – their contribution is appreciated and applauded.
At its best, history is a living reality. The history of St. Agnes Parish is a very interesting one because it, too, is a living history. It makes captivating reading. It is the history of a parish which had real growing pains, serious problems of adjusting to changing times and social situations. Any community of persons that can look back on more than 100 years of history can expect to look back on a span of ups and downs, achievements and setbacks, successes and failures. That’s what real human history is all about. Over the past century, St. Agnes Church and School has withstood many hurtles. There has been the process of growth and change that have marked the development of the Church in the periods now labeled as pre-Vatican II, Vatican II, and post-Vatican II. There are very few people today who would risk predicting the future beyond a very few years, but a close reading of history can give confidence about moving into the future. The evident ability of the people of St. Agnes to live out their community history through quite radical changes in country and church argues well enough for their capacity to move into the second century of their history with the confidence of being guided and sustained as a part of the People of God on their pilgrimage to His Kingdom.
Time Line of Events:
1851 – First Catholic Mass held at Horse Creek – West of Morrill, NE
1903 – 1903 St. John’s Catholic Church est. in Scottsbluff
1912 – St. John’s inaugurated as a Parish of the Diocese of Omaha & Fr. O’Byrne named first pastor
1917 – Cornerstone of new Church was laid by Most Rev. James Duffy, Bishop of Grand Island
1917 –Name was changed from St. John’s Catholic Church to St. Agnes Catholic Church
1919 – Church was officially dedicated on March 30th
1919 – Rev. Timothy Molony was appointed 2nd Pastor – a pastorate that would last 40 years
1937 – Final mortgage payment paying off the current church building
1955 – St. Agnes Catholic School begins
1959 – Rev. James Whalen appointed 3rd pastor
1968 – St. Agnes School addition of the Gymatorium is completed
1970 – Rev. Walter Phelan appointed 4th pastor
1972 – Rev. Donald O’Brien appointed 5th pastor
1980 – First Kindergarten Class added to St. Agnes School
1981 – Rev. Robert Karnish appointed the 6th pastor
1986 – South ramp built on as an addition to the church
1987 – First “Going Bananas for Jesus” was held in Scottsbluff with over 500 participants
1988 – Rev. Charles Torpey appointed 7th pastor
1993 – First “Banana Splits” held
1996 – Rev. James O’Kane appointed 8th pastor
1998 – First & only Pentecost Mass held at 5 Rocks
2000 – St. Agnes Church began a 1.5 million dollar renovation of the church
2002 – Most Rev. Lawrence J McNamara re-dedicated St. Agnes Church
2003 – Rev. Donald Buhrman appointed 9th pastor
2006 – First Lenten Fish Fry started
2009 – Rev. Vincent Parsons appointed 10th pastor
2010 – Preschool & After School program added at St. Agnes
2011 – St. Agnes School Foundation begins “Premiere”