St. Paul Church in Center overflows with history


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This is an updated version of an article originally published in The Catholic Missourian in July 2000.

Serenity, detachment and ageless pastoral beauty.

These are the things of a Jubilee pilgrimage to St. Paul Historic Church and the outdoor Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows, located near Center in Ralls County.

Under the care of some of the original parishioners’ descendants, the 1860-vintage church building and Great Depression-era shrine continue to compliment and defy the woods and hills that surround them. 

Pilgrims gravitate throughout the year to the historic site to pray and meditate on the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Mother. Many of the pilgrims pay respects to their ancestors before leaving the grounds.

The former St. Paul Parish was established in 1829, although the Catholic community that formed it is even older.

St. Paul Historic Church is known as the Mother Church of Northeastern Missouri. Father Peter Paul Lefevere, the second resident pastor, used the original church as a home base while ministering to Catholic communities in Missouri, Iowa and Michigan in the 1830s.

Peter Paul Tolton, father of Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, was baptized by Fr. Lefevere and named in his honor.

Records indicate that pioneers began settling along the Salt River in what is now Ralls County in around 1812. Most of them were English Catholics who had settled originally in St. Mary County, Maryland, then in Nelson, Washington, Marion, Scott and Union counties in Kentucky, according to historian Ron Leake, whose father, the late Fred Leake, helped restore St. Paul Church in the 1970s and ’80s.

Some evidence suggests that earlier settlers had moved briefly into the Salt River valley in the late 1790s and early 1800s. Such movement would have to have been small, and most of the people would have left before or during the War of 1812, Mr. Leake said.

A major push into the area began around 1819, according to a book titled The Genesis of Missouri. Later settlers moved to the parish straight from Maryland and Virginia to live with their relatives. Irish Catholics followed, having landed first on the East Coast, then traveling west, Mr. Leake said.

Priests from nearby Cahokia, Illinois, ministered to the Salt River settlement until 1826, when Jesuit priests from St. Louis were sent to the missions in Northeastern Missouri.

Bishop Joseph Rosati CM of St. Louis assigned Father Van Kreiganbaum to be the first resident priest in 1829. Two years later, the bishop sent Fr. Lefevere to make the parish his base of operations. For more than 80 years thereafter, priests serving the missions in Northeastern Missouri lived on the grounds of St. Paul Church.

Under Fr. Lefevere’s direction, the parishioners built a log church, which Bishop Rosati blessed on Sept. 30, 1838.

Fr. Lefevere was appointed auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Detroit in 1840 and later served as its administrator.

A child named Abram Joseph Ryan, destined to become a priest and poet of the Civil War era, moved with his family from Hagerstown, Maryland, to St. Paul Parish sometime between 1840-42. The family moved to St. Louis sometime before 1846.

Following the short tenures of several pioneer priests, Father Francis Kielty arrived at St. Paul Parish in 1857 and designed a Gothic-style church of native stone to replace Fr. Lefevere’s deteriorating log structure. Parishioners completed the church in 1860.

The building boasts a 6-foot-deep foundation and 2-foot-thick walls. The stone was quarried nearby and hauled to the site by oxcart. However, no one in the parish knows exactly where the stone — which is similar to that used to build nearby St. Peter Church in Brush Creek — came from, Ron Leake said.

More than 160 years after construction, the stonework remains in excellent shape.

In nearby St. Paul Cemetery, believed to be the oldest in Ralls County, lie the remains of veterans of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish American War and World War I. Ron Leake estimates that 80 percent of the people whose remains were laid to rest in the cemetery were descendants of Raphael Leake.

The remains of Revolutionary War soldiers Ignatius Greenwell and Arnold Hardy are buried in the cemetery. The remains of Thomas Whitington, who also fought in the war, are believed to have been buried there in 1819, years before the first church was built and the cemetery established. Ron Leake and other historians have not been able to find a record of Mr. Whitington’s burial.

“It would have been years before the church was built and the cemetery established,” Mr. Leake said.

Archbishop John J. Kain of St. Louis established St. William Parish in Perry as a mission of St. Paul Parish in 1901. The last resident priest at St. Paul Parish moved to Perry in 1917, and Center became a mission of St. William.

Father William O’Brien was assigned to both parishes in 1937. He established the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows on the grounds of St. Paul Church in order to renew the pilgrim spirit of the parish’s pioneer days. 

Built by descendants of the original settlers out of rocks found in nearby creeks, the outdoor shrine consists of seven stations containing paintings of Mary’s seven sorrows: Simeon’s prophecy that a sword would pierce her heart; the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt; the loss of Jesus in the Temple; meeting Jesus on the way to Calvary; standing at the foot of the cross; the removal of his body from the cross; and the entombment.

Local artist Ellen Long Elam created the paintings in the 1950s and restored them in the 1980s.

A short distance from the church, a Pieta statue depicting Mary holding the body of her son after it is taken from the cross rests on the foundation of the old parish rectory. Linking the stations is a rugged, winding path around the periphery of the cemetery.

Pope Pius XI (+1922-38) had encouraged the faithful of the world to devote themselves to the Sorrowful Mother. People making a pilgrimage to a shrine dedicated to her honor were encouraged to make seven simple acts of self-denial in spiritual preparation.

“Why a shrine at St. Paul?” wrote Fr. O’Brien in the shrine’s dedication booklet in 1939. “Because it is the oldest Catholic community in Northeast Missouri. For more than 125 years, this isolated little group of Catholics has kept the faith. What would be a more fitting tribute of gratitude for the many benefits showered upon the parishioners of the present and past generations than this sanctuary for prayer?”

The first official pilgrimage to the shrine was held on Sept. 17, 1939. Pilgrimages continued to be held in May and September until World War II gasoline rationing made it impossible for people to make the drive to Center.

The parish became a part of the newly established Diocese of Jefferson City in 1956. Ten years later, St. Paul Parish was closed and the parishes in Perry and Paris were placed under the care of one pastor.

St. Paul Church would remain empty except on special occasions.

The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in May 1979. That year, for the 150th anniversary of the parish’s founding, nearby residents and former parishioners undertook the restoration of the solid but weathered church. Workers included descendants of the Leake and Elliott families that helped build and pay for the building and welcomed Fr. Lefevere into their homes.

Parishioners returned original furnishings they had been storing for safe keeping.

Bishop Michael F. McAuliffe (+1969-97), now deceased, of Jefferson City presided at a Mass at the church in honor of the parish sesquicentennial.

Subsequent improvements to the grounds, made during the late Father Kenneth Brockel’s pastorate in Perry and Parish, have included a new floor, new sidewalks that make the building accessible to people with disabilities, a new flagpole, updated electrical systems, and new windows with panes that match the Gothic originals.

Fred Leake built a mailbox that mimics the church’s design. A group from St. Brendan Parish in Mexico paid for an air-conditioning system.

Parishioners built a restroom and museum room onto the back of the building in 1990.

Father John Henderson, pastor of St. William Parish in Perry and the Mission of St. Frances Cabrini in Paris, returns to St. Paul Church at least once a year to offer Mass.

An annual ice cream social helps pay to maintain the church and grounds.

The church is located off Highways 19 and EE, near Center.