To write a story about Church of St. John the Evangelist, Rochester's first Catholic church, we must reach back nearly 150 years to a time shortly after Minnesota became the 32nd state in 1858. Through the decades, building anew and renovations, the church's location at 11 Fourth Ave. S.W. remains the same.
Being formed in 1863, the first church building was dedicated Dec. 1, 1872, at a cost of $40,000. At that time, the Rev. James Morris had purchased three lots near the old courthouse as a site for the church. The courthouse has long been gone, but the three lots never moved, and neither has St. John’s.
By the turn of the century into the 1900s, a growing St. John’s parish felt the need for expansion. A new cornerstone was set Oct. 12, 1900, and the new house of worship was dedicated on April 27, 1905, at a cost of $60,000.
Because the city was growing rapidly, it’s likely some of the parishioners at St. John’s wondered when they would need to build again. Many efforts were turned to education during the next 50 years.
In 1913, three new schools were completed and opened for classes in September. First, there was a grade school for boys and girls. Soon there was a high school for the girls known as St. John’s, taught by the Sisters, and Heffron High School for boys.
Heffron High School was named for the Most Rev. Patrick R. Heffron, bishop of the Winona Diocese from 1910 until 1927.
Another name that always raised my curiosity was Cotter High School in Winona. That school was named after the first bishop of the Winona Diocese, the Most Rev. Joseph B. Cotter.
Another Catholic milestone was the opening of Lourdes High School in January 1942. The Rev. Louis D. O’Day came to St. John’s from St. Thomas parish in Winona and started plans to replace the 1905 church building. Within two years, another dedication, this time a Mass by Father Joseph Mountain on Jan. 27, 1957.
A fine story teller, Father James Mc Cauley became the church priest in 1991, leading up to the Rev. Msgr. Gerald A. Mahon, who has led this congregation of 1,350 households for the past 16 years.
This has been a time for a complete turnaround for St. John's. Following a needs assessment survey in 1998, showing many concerns, it was determined that more space was needed to provide education for liturgy and environment.
The liturgical committee had a vision with a long list of “needs” to make everything about St. John’s the Evangelist Church perfect. Some of the suggestions included were to provide a separate sacred space for small liturgical celebrations and personal prayer, improvement of lighting and acoustics, handicap accessibility to all areas of the parish facility, and to provide a separate area for funeral luncheons and other functions.
Another is the beautiful baptismal spot where families can gather while little ones are baptized.
In response to their vision statement in 1999, architects developed a final proposal. This created a gathering and fellowship area in the old school gym and added a chapel to the Fourth Avenue side of the church. This made available an entrance for church members and hundreds of folks coming from Mayo Clinic.
A new subway connects St. John’s and Mayo Clinic. Church renovation began in 2001 and the dedication at the new sanctuary took place May 19, 2002. This was the Feast of the Pentecost.
Old friend Bishop Bernard J. Harrington (now retired) was at this celebration as he served the Diocese of Winona as bishop.
On May 5, 2002, Father Mahon wrote in the church bulletin, “During the past five years our dream has unfolded in front of us brick by brick and we are prepared to be a strong, vibrant parish community for the next 100 years.”
Now the oldest Catholic church in Rochester, St. John the Evangelist, known as a “Welcoming Catholic Community,” is preparing for its 150th anniversary in 2013. Rochester Post Bulletin