Friday, August 5, 2011

St. John's Parish, Hugo: Community Cornerstone for 110 Years

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The Parish of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Hugo will hold its 110th birthday celebration this weekend, and parishioners are planning a community party. The public is invited to attend an old-fashioned country picnic on Sunday, Aug. 7, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. as church members and local dignitaries mark the occasion.

A Look Back at Parish History

A church’s history is interwoven with the history of its parishioners and the births, baptisms, and wedding and funeral Masses that mark their lives.

For the Parish of St. John the Baptist, that history really began in Centerville more than 150 years ago. There the Parish of St. Genevieve of Paris was founded in 1854, three years before the Township of Centerville was established. Now it seems that things have come full circle: St. John’s parish looks to the future, when it will merge with the Parish of St. Genevieve under a strategic plan announced last October by Archbishop John C. Nienstedt of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Though the two parishes share a common heritage, the proposed merger has not necessarily been easy to accept: objections were filed with the archdiocese by members of both parishes. The merger continues to be a work in progress. Prior to the construction of St. John the Baptist in Hugo—known then as Centerville Station—area residents of the Catholic faith made the weekly journey to Mass at St. Genevieve by traveling three miles west on the corduroy road.

The Parish of St. John the Baptist was formally established on Feb. 27, 1901 and the church cornerstone was laid Sept. 29 seven months later. The church was completed in 1902, and area residents along the St. Paul & Duluth Railroad tracks finally had their own church home. In fact, for more than three generations, St. John the Baptist was the only church located in the small village—and the only church in 36-square-mile Oneka Township, which surrounded the town.

The village buzzed on Sundays as parishioners attended Mass and then spent the remainder of the day socializing and completing their shopping errands before the work week began once more.

For many township residents, it was their one weekly trip in to visit area merchants, and they made it count. Buggies were tied up to hitching posts along dusty Main Street, the main road from St. Paul to Duluth, which would not be paved for another 25 years.

In 1902, parishioners John and Julie LaValle presented a deed for three acres of land to the church for use as a cemetery. Until the time of Fr. Laventure’s death in 1941, preaching was conducted regularly in French as well as in English, for at least one Mass each week.

In 1947, the church was destroyed by a three-alarm fire, which was reported to have started in the entrance of the church. It quickly moved up the belfry and engaged the roof. According to historian Gits, the limitations of the local fire truck—which could only haul 300 gallons of water at a time—and the lack of long ladders spelled the end of the 45-year-old building.

Largely financed by the pledges of the parish’s 175 families, the church was rebuilt on its original foundation. Newly appointed pastor Fr. Lloyd J. Fortin took on a special project during the reconstruction of the church: he spent many hours learning how to make the stained glass windows that still adorn the sanctuary.

Parishioners stepped up to help with reconstruction. One family donated wood from forest stands on their farm, another fashioned a new handrail, still another constructed a new tabernacle.

Vestments and silk hangings were sewn by careful seamstresses, a blacksmith crat ed ornamental wrought iron railings and grilles, and teams of area cooks prepared huge Sunday night meals for sale at the church in order to help pay of the debt. “I still can’t look a meat loaf in the face today,” historian Gits quoted one parishioner as saying. The new church was dedicated April 25, 1948.

Three years later, in September 1951, more than 600 people helped celebrate the 50th birthday of the parish with a chicken dinner: according to Gits, the number of guests was as great as the populations of the Village of Hugo and City of Centerville combined.

The cemetery’s shrines also hint at the church’s history: when visitors enter, the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima can be seen to the right. Father Fortin created a scene that included several children and sheep gazing at a statue of the Virgin Mary; a rosary of cement and stones surrounds the shrine. Some of the heavier stones came from the Francis Lutz farm in what was then Oneka Township and is now the City of Hugo.

Located farther within the cemetery is the Shrine to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, built of fieldstone—a common byproduct of farming in an area formerly overlain by glaciers. The altar itself is the threshold of the original church building, retrieved from the ashes of the church after it was destroyed in 1947. The slab at the base of the altar was from the base of the old sacristy.

In the same vein, under the planned merger, parish families will continue to build on what has gone before. A firm date for the merger has not yet been set—it could possibly happen in 2012 if St. Genevieve’s Fr. Tom Fitzgerald retires next year—but it will occur no later than July 1, 2013, archdiocese representatives have said.

Fr. Jon Shelley told parishioners earlier this year, “Our work together today begins with a shared understanding that every member of our community (Centerville/Hugo) will play a part in our future shared ministry.” “By combining our resources and not duplicating efforts,” he said, “we can really take on the challenges of what it means to be a Catholic parish.” The Citizen

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