Catholic presence in this area of the state goes all the way back to the 1730s, when the first French explorers visited what is now western North Dakota.
The official creation of a Catholic diocese in western North Dakota finally came in 1910, when the state was still a frontier in many ways. Although the first Model Ts were appearing, much of the travel around North Dakota was still horse-drawn — country roads were primitive trails, blockaded by snow in the winter and jellied into quicksand-like gumbo after rains.
Bishop Paul Zipfel of the Diocese of Bismarck paid tribute to the pioneering priests who served the Catholic parishes in those days in his New Year’s Eve homily, a service that launched the diocese’s centennial year.
The Mass was conducted at the Church of St. Mary in downtown Bismarck. Built in 1875, it was originally located on the corner of Main Avenue and Mandan Street and served as the “pro-cathedral” of the diocese — the bishop’s church — until the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit was built in 1945.
The diocese will celebrate its centennial throughout this year with activities that include a three-day celebration at the Bismarck Civic Center from June 11-13, and a trip to the Holy Land from Oct. 6-15, led by Zipfel and the Rev. Chad Gion, pastor at the Church of the Spirit of Life in Mandan.
During his homily, the bishop paid thanks to those sturdy pioneer priests who served parishes in the earliest years of the diocese, and the faithful Catholics who immigrated to North Dakota and helped create the thriving churches on the prairie.
Zipfel also outlined the history of the diocese and some of its notable and revered founders.
He noted that from 1889 to 1909, Bishop John Shanley was bishop of the entire state of North Dakota, but shortly before his death in Fargo at age 57, rumors emerged of a new diocese to be established in the western part of the state. On Jan. 8, 1910, Archbishop Ireland of St. Paul, Minn., released the news about the establishment of the Diocese of Bismarck.
In March of that year, Abbot Vincent Wehrle of Assumption Abbey in Richardton was chosen to become the first bishop of the new diocese. Three days later, Ireland formally installed Wehrle at the Church of St. Mary, which served as the pro-cathedral until the 1940s.
During most of Wehrle’s administration, the diocese was mission territory, Zipfel said, and most priests had several missions connected to their parishes. Although Model T vehicles had arrived on the scene, he said, because of costs, most priests before 1920 relied on a team of horses and a wagon for transportation, traveling through rain and snow, keeping warm with heavy buffalo robes and charcoal foot warmers.
Wehrle was a veteran missionary who would often travel around the diocese and fill in for parish priests who were ill.
The diocese was not yet 10 years old when the influenza epidemic of 1918 hit, taking a heavy toll on the Diocese of Bismarck, including six young priests who died during the epidemic.
Wehrle resigned at the age of 84; the diocese’s first bishop is buried in a vault beneath the twin towers of the Abbey church in Richardton.
A detailed and thorough history of the diocese was put together under the leadership of Marge Grosz, former diocesan newspaper editor, who died in 2008.
Grosz was responsible for the development, research and writing of “Perseverance in Faith,” 230 pages of diocesan history, including hundreds of photos, stories and historical background.
Grosz worked on the book for more than five years; after she became ill, the book was completed with the help of Margaret Sitte. Copies of “Perseverance in Faith” are available at parishes across the diocese.
Co-chairing the centennial events are Ron Schatz, director of the office of stewardship for the diocese, and Joyce McDowall, director of the office of family ministry. The two were appointed by the bishop to head the centennial planning after Grosz’s death. They can be reached at 222-3035. Bismarck Tribune
Prior to the establishment of the Diocese of Bismarck, the area fell under the Diocese of North Dakota that had its chancery in Jamestown. Here is some more of the history from the Diocese of Bismarck's web page:
In 1879 Pope Leo XIII erected the whole of Dakota Territory into a Vicariate Apostolic and appointed Abbot Martin Marty as vicar apostolic. The Code of Canon Law defines a Vicariate Apostolic as "...a certain portion of the people of God which has not yet been establiished as a diocese due to special circumstances and which, to be shepherded, is entrusted to an apostolic prefect who governs it in the name of the Supreme Pontiff."
Following Abbot Marty's consecration on Feb. 1, 1880, he made Yankton his headquarters. The new bishop had only 13 priests in the whole of Dakota Territory. Four of those were in the northwest quarter: one in Bismarck and three in Fort Yates. Two priests of note were Benedictines: Father Bernard Strassmeier and Father Francis Gershwyler. Father Bernard served 54 years at Fort Yates and Father Francis served 52.
Before 1880, few people settled in western Dakota. In 1879 rails for the Northern Pacific were laid west of Bismarck and soon town sites sprang up along the route. Most of the early settlers were easterners. The first Catholics in Bismarck, Mandan, Dickinson, Minot and Williston were predominantly Irish. Gradually other nationalities outnumbered the Irish, the largest contingent being German Russians. Other nationalities were French, Ukrainians, Bohemians, Dutch, Germans, and German Hungarians.
When it became evident, in the fall of 1889, that Dakota Territory would soon enter the Union as the states of North and South Dakota, Bishop Marty took the occasion to urge the Hoy See to establish a separate diocese for each of the new states. Pope Leo XIII granted his request in September of 1889. Father John Shanley, rector of the Cathedral in St. Paul, was appointed Bishop of North Dakota. The 37-year-old Bishop took charge of his See at Jamestown on January 22, 1890. Thirty priests covered all of North Dakota at the time.
By 1909 Bishop Shanley could see that the entire state was too large an area to be governed by one bishop. On March 21, 1910, the feast of st. Benedict, Pope Pius X formally erected the Diocese of Bismarck., and named Abbot Vincent Wehrle, OSB, of Assumption Abbey, as the first Bishop of Bismarck. Bishop Wehrle was officially welcomed on June 13, 1910, with a festive parade. Three days later he was installed at the Church of St. Mary, which was then known as the pro-cathedral until the present Cathedral of the Holy Spirit was completed in 1945. Diocese of Bismarck