After almost 100 years of service to the people of the International Falls area, the Roman Catholic order of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate is relinquishing the administration of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic parish in International Falls and St. Columban Catholic parish in Littlefork.
The local churches will now be administrated by the Diocese of Duluth. Rev. Mitch Byeck, OMI, who presently serves St. Thomas, has been reassigned by the Oblates to a parish in Buffalo, N.Y. He will be succeeded at International Falls by two diocesan priests.
The declining number of Oblate priests and religious Brothers and the distance from other Oblates contributed to the decision, said Father Louis Lougen, OMI, provincial, in announcing the decision by the Oblates to leave International Falls. He explained that St. Thomas has become an established and well-functioning parish, enabling the Oblates to move on to other more “missionary” areas, in keeping with the Oblate charism.
St. Thomas parishioners are invited to honor the Oblates at a special service on Sunday. Rev. Joseph Hitpas, OMI, treasurer of the United States Province of the Oblates which also served the Catholics in neighboring Fort Frances for more than 100 years, will represent the congregation. Many Oblates who have served the parish are expected to attend. Oblate religious Brother Bill Johnson, OMI, a native son of the parish, is expected among those attending the service.
Parishioners are also invited to gather at Aquinas Hall following the 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass to say farewell to the OMI order as well as the attending Oblates. Following tonight’s evening Mass, a farewell reception in the Gathering Area of St. Thomas Church is scheduled.
[Archbishop Roger Schwietz O.M.I. of Anchorage was the Bishop of Duluth between 1989 and 2000. Between 1984 and 1989 he had been the pastor of Holy Family Parish in Duluth. Holy Family was the product of the merger of the three West End parishes of St. Clement's, St. Jean de Baptiste and Sts. Peter and Paul.]
A century of service
Catholicism in Borderland can be traced back to early Jesuit explorers. In 1732, Jesuit priest Father Charles Mesaiger accompanied the explorer Pierre Aultier La Verendrye to the area. But the first organized Catholic parish with a local church structure wasn’t in place until 1905. That year, an ethnic mix of about 50 early settlers united to organize a parish which was first served by French Canadian Oblate priests stationed in Fort Frances. A few months later, the congregation erected a 26-foot by 36-foot wooden frame church which became known as “the little white church.” It was built where the St. Thomas School now stands. Today, that wooden structure can be found south of the present church on Seventh Street.
The original parish was named the Church of the Holy Apostles. The first resident pastor of the church was Patrick J. Killeen.
Soon after, construction of the dam in the Rainy River began and local builders were encouraged to use the indigenous granite which was being excavated from that site. Loads of the native blue-gray rock were hauled by horses to the Catholic properties. In 1913, an impressive new church with a steeple which dominated the fledgling city’s skyline was built from the massive rock which once sustained “the falls” in the Rainy River. Today, the stalwart church along with the Koochiching County Courthouse and the Alexander Baker building represent the grandest and oldest historical structures in International Falls.
A cornerstone was laid in August of 1913 but the church wasn’t completed until 1916 when it was dedicated as the Church of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Due to its remoteness, the Manitoba Province of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate was asked by the Duluth Diocese to staff the parish. In 1919, Father William Patton became the first Oblate to become pastor. Soon to follow as pastors were Canadian Oblate Frs. Cornelius O’Dwyer, Arthur LaBonte, George Desrochers and Edouard Lamontagne.
During the first two decades of the local Catholic church, the seeds for the St. Thomas League, parish bazaars, the Tabernacle Society, the Knights of Columbus and the Catholic Daughters of the Americas had been planted. In 1927, the St. Thomas School was established. The parish would enlarge and renovate the school in 1957, as well as the add a rectory and convent residence for Benedictine Sisters.
In 1960, pastoral administration was transferred from the Canadian Oblate Fathers to the U.S. Oblates. Father Chester Kozal, a native of Poland and a Dachau concentration camp survivor who was liberated by Allied Forces just three hours before his scheduled execution, served as pastor.
Frs. Leonard Baldus, Paul Stoeckel, Roger Bergkamp, Robert Kell, Norman Volk, Dennis Deis, Louis Sondgeroth, and Mitch Byeck would follow, assisted by numerous other Oblates over the years. In 1962, Aquinas Hall was built. The purposes of several structures would be reassigned. Catholic Charities was established to meet the needs of the community. The parish was held in such high esteem by the Oblates that many seminarians were sent to get their first taste of ministry at St. Thomas.
But a number of profound changes were in store.
By 1963, the Council for Vatican II announced a theological shift which would significantly alter Catholic worship. And in 1966, a Parish Aid Program would ignite the involvement of lay persons in running the parish. By 1970, parish elections were held for a Board of Education and a Finance Commission. A stronger involvement of lay people as well as several spiritual aid programs would ensue in the 70s.
By the end of the year 2004, an overall renovation of the St. Thomas complex was completed and over 500 parishioners got their first glimpse of the structural and cosmetic changes which one person said “takes your breath away.” The new look would coincide with the churches 100th anniversary in 2005.
While under the administration of the Oblates, St. Thomas has undergone nearly 100 years of evolution, prevailing through the social and economical hills and valleys which affect religious worship.
Lougen noted, “St. Thomas is a lively and flourishing Catholic community, and we are proud and happy to have been a part of its growth for so many years. We wish many blessings upon the parish as they begin a new chapter in their history.”International Falls Journal