Columban Fathers and St. Mary's Catholic Church
On April 25, 1921 St., Mary’s Catholic Church, Bellevue, Nebraska, was established as a parish by Archbishop Jeremiah J. Harty Bishop of Omaha. Three years later, in March 1927, Bishop Beckman of the Omaha Diocese “committed the parish to the direction of the Columban Fathers.” Rev. E. J. McCarthy, rector of the St. Columban’s Mission Society, was appointed pastor of what was then called St. Mark’s parish. With his appointment as pastor and his plans for a church, a ninety-four-year relationship between the Columban Fathers on the hill and St. Mary’s Church down the hill began.
On July 14, 1933, Columban Fr. Richard J. Ahern became pastor. Shortly after his appointment, on July 30, 1933, the Most Rev. Bishop Joseph F. Rummel, bishop of Omaha, presided at the laying of the cornerstone of the new St. Mary’s Church. Prior to the ceremony twenty- six children and twelve adults were confirmed at the Ft. Crook service club during the 10:30 Mass celebrated by Father Ahern. Serving as sub- deacon at the cornerstone ceremony was Columban Fr. James Gilsenan; Columban Fr. Joseph O’Leary was also present. Among the items laid in the cornerstone was a Catholic History of Bellevue, written by Columban Fr. E. J. McCarthy. Fr. McCarthy also provided a stone from the Shrine of our Lady of Lourdes. Also announced at noon that day was the news that the name of St. Mark’s Catholic Church of Bellevue was formally changed to St. Mary’s Catholic Church.
A 1933 newspaper clipping headline Bishop Rummel Dedicates New St. Mary’s Parish states that Bishop Joseph F. Rummel was assisted by members of the Chinese Mission Society of St. Columban. In his dedication sermon he thanked those who made the day possible and said this of the Columban Fathers: “We are exceedingly grateful for the zealous Fathers of St. Columban, who under the leadership of their superior, the Very Rev. Edward McCarthy, have devoted themselves so faithfully to the task of unifying the Catholic community of Bellevue and Fort Crook and directing so successfully its spiritual and moral welfare. The Diocese of Omaha is indebted to these apostolic men, whose service have made it possible to realize this day of joy and gladness.” In 1933 Fr. McCarthy celebrated midnight Mass in the new church.
Columban Fr. Richard Ahern became pastor of the newly named St. Mary’s Catholic Church in 1933 serving for nine years. He was followed by Archbishop Ryan’s appointment of Fr. Ernest Graham in 1942. Upon his departure the Columban Fathers served St. Mary’s parish for just three months before Fr. Robert A. Garvey was appointed pastor. In late 1945 twenty-five men of the parish interested in providing a Catholic education for children approached Fr. Garvey about building a Catholic school. St. Mary’s School opened its doors in 1948 with three Dominican nuns from Kentucky as the first teachers.
Mary Hascall Tyner, a student in the 1960s remembers her father, Dean Hascall, along with other men of the parish attending retreats up at the Columbans and how the men, happy to be with family again on Sundays, were changed men. She also recalls the school’s efforts to support the Columban missionaries: “During Lent we would all bring our nickels and dimes to school to help…we were told if we collected $25.00, we adopted a child and could save that child for one year.” Today St. Mary’s supports St. Gabriel in Chile. The relationships continue as well with Columban Fr. Val Kyne who has led the school’s Jr. Legion of Mary meetings for five years. He is their spiritual advisor and leads the members in good works and in praying the rosary. Annual end of the year field trips by St. Mary’s fourth graders included visits to the Columban Father’s grotto, chapel and buildings to see displays of their history and missions around the world. Oftentimes a visit with a Columban priest was a special treat. Fourth and fifth grade Spanish classes have visited with Columban Father Chris Saenz who has shared information on “Day of the Dead” including an altar honoring deceased family members of the Columbans. Proceeds from the annual St. Mary’s Catholic Schools Week bake sale benefit a Columban mission.
Fr. Garvey was pastor of St. Mary’s Church until 1968 building not only St. Mary’s Catholic School but a new and bigger St. Mary’s Church. The Bellevue Press [now the Bellevue Leader] reported on April 12, 1957, that the new church would be dedicated with its first Mass on Palm Sunday, April 14, 1957. “Deacons of Honor for the Pontifical Mass will be Father Peter McParland, S.S.C. Regional Superior of the Columban Fathers in the U.S.A…. A major share of credit for the happiness of this Dedication Day belongs to the Columban Fathers who were in charge of the Bellevue Parish for fifteen years. Fathers E. J. McCarthy and Richard Ahern deserve special mention. Without the regular help of our good neighbors at Saint Columbans we would never have seen this day.”
On May 30, 1953, Columban Fr. Alban A. Sueper was ordained in St. Mary’s Church as was Bellevue native and Columban Fr. Chris Saenz in 2000. The year 1953 also saw Columban Fr. James Kielt starting the annual St. Columban summer festivals. Many St. Mary’s parishioners and priests as well as the Bellevue community have supported and enjoyed tremendously these festivals for many years. St. Mary’s parishioners still visit and are given permission to utilize the peaceful grounds on the hill. The Columban grounds have been the site of many parish and school activities including Confirmation retreats, “August Rush,” and in more recent years, St. Mary’s parish picnics. Their grounds are also used for community gardens available to parishioners to grow their own crops during the summer. Gardeners are asked to give 10% of their crops to the local San Juan Food Pantry.
As stated in the April 16, 1957, Bellevue Press Catholic Church Shares in 100 Years Centennial of County: “Paralleling and almost co-incident with this period we see the establishment of St. Columban’s Foreign Mission Society on the hill above Bellevue, first as a seminary and later (since 1953) as the Society’s American headquarters. To the readers of this publication the heroic story of the late Bishop Edward L. Galvin and the founding of St. Columban’s is too well known to require detailed retelling. It is miraculous, almost beyond belief that one short lifetime could encompass the founding and tremendous growth of this important Catholic Mission Society. Certainly in this renaissance period through the modern day martyrs and missioners of the Society of St. Columban Bellevue has become known in nearly every part of the world.” It is certainly known and held dear to the hearts of St. Mary’s Catholic Church.
Today, as during the almost one hundred year relationship of the Bellevue Columban Fathers and St. Mary’s Catholic Church, there has certainly been tremendous physical and spiritual growth as well as uncountable faith filled moments and friendships established for which the past and current members, both on top of the hill and at the bottom of the hill, cherish to this day. We thank our Lord Jesus Christ that our forefathers like Fr. DeSmet and all those that followed, whether by river boat or modern-day transportation, began what has continued and will continue for the next one hundred years – a shared faith.
St. Mary’s Catholic Church of Bellevue will be celebrating its centennial on Sunday, April 25, 2021 exactly one hundred years to the day that Archbishop Harty established the parish originally known as St. Mark’s Catholic Church. Archbishop Lucas will celebrate the centennial Mass at 4 p.m. followed by a dinner at the Knights Event Center at 6:30 p.m. Among the many invitees are the Columban Fathers who gave so generously of themselves throughout the years and for whom the pastors and parishioners of St. Mary’s Church, both past and current, are eternally grateful.
For more information, please visit stmarysbellevue.com.
Becky Feagan is a member of St. Mary’s parish, Bellevue, Nebraska.