St. James Catholic Church, Catawissa, turns 100 years old this spring and will celebrate its centennial this Saturday, May 11.
Mass will be celebrated at 5 p.m. with dinner following in the dining hall.
St. James’ wooden church at 1107 Summit Drive originally was built in 1913 as a companion church to St. Patrick of Armagh, known as the Rock Church, and was designated a mission of St. Patrick’s.
For the first decade, Sunday Mass was celebrated at both buildings. Some parishioners attended St. James only when inclement weather made the roads to St. Patrick’s impassable.
In 1988, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of St. James, Father Thomas Molini, a St. James parishioner who was ordained a priest, wrote a history of the church.
He noted that at the time St. James was built, “not only did the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad pass through Catawissa, but a variety of businesses had opened, including two general stores, a lumberyard, a grain mill and elevator, two blacksmiths, a cobbler, a dentist, two doctors, a barber and two saloons.”
Pastor Father Arthur O’Reilly continued to live in the rectory at St. Patrick’s and St. James was a mission church. When Father O’Reilly retired in 1924, the new pastor was assigned to St. James and church members built the two-story frame rectory next to the church.
St. Patrick’s then became — and remains to this day — the mission church.
Father Molini noted that things were quiet in Catawissa during the 1930s and 1940s. So quiet that when the pastor, Father A.J. Whalen, died in 1951 no new pastor was assigned.
For the next 30 years, St. James was a parish without a pastor. A series of priests traveled from neighboring churches for Sunday Mass and baptisms, but weddings and funerals were performed at St. Bridget’s in Pacific.
In 1981, Father Walter Boul, who had spent 27 years at St. William’s Church in Woodson Terrace, wanted a smaller parish and was assigned to the little church of St. James. In preparation for a new pastor, parishioners renovated the parish house inside and out and installed air-conditioning.
Another St. James parishioner who became a priest was Father Hilbert Schmelz, a man whose priesthood was the result of a personal renewal.
Mary Hayden of Lake Tekawitha keeps clippings of his extraordinary life that is something of a legend in the informal lore of the community.
Hilbert “Bert” Schmelz was born Aug. 15, 1909, near Catawissa at a time when the family would have attended St. Patrick’s Old Rock Church. In 1913, when the small wooden church of St. James was built, the family became parishioners at St. James.
John and Caroline Hill Schmelz had 13 children who attended Bend School. Bert attended Pacific High School and St. Mary’s College. He entered the U.S. Army in April 1942 and served in North Africa, Sicily and Italy.
A photo of him in uniform was printed in The Missourian in November 1944 when he was granted his first leave since entering the Army to come home for Thanksgiving.
After the war, he opened the Fenton Feed Store, where “he was real successful, but he wasn’t happy,” his brother James Schmelz said at the time of this death.
Hilbert Schmelz decided to sell his feed store and entered Cardinal Glennon College and Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis.
“After that, he was the happiest man I knew,” James Schmelz said.
Archbishop Joseph Ritter ordained Father Schmelz and 15 other Kenrick seminarians as Catholic priests April 2, 1960, at the St. Louis Cathedral.
The St. Louis Review published a four-column photo of the new priests surrounding the archbishop on the front steps of the cathedral.
Father Schmelz celebrated his first solemn Mass in his family parish church of St. James in Catawissa Sunday, April 3, 1960. That evening the entire Catawissa community was invited to a reception for Father Schmelz in the St. James Parish Hall.
The new priest was named associate pastor at St. Bridget Parish in Pacific, where he remained in until 1967.
In 2001, Father Hubert Creason, St. James pastor, had been saying for a decade that he would enjoy fresh air during Mass when the weather allowed. But at some time in the past — for reasons no one could understand — all 11 high-arched church windows had been nailed shut.
In May, a group of parish volunteers, Ed Tenney, Andy Kliethermes, Jim Westermayer and Dick Bossch, decided to shed some light on the subject. They would restore the windows and return them to working condition.
When workers removed the nails and took the windows apart, for the first complete restoration since they were installed in 1913, it was clear why the windows had been nailed shut.
At some unrecorded date, the glass panes had been replaced with Plexiglas, but the original weights, calibrated for the heavier glass windows, were not changed. The weights automatically pulled the windows open, and there was no way to lock them shut. This wouldn’t have done in the extremes of winter or summer of the region, so parishioners drove nails through the frames, securing them in place.
St. James is home to an original artist’s rendering of The Transfiguration, the Bible scene where Jesus stood on Mount Tabor with Moses and Elijah on either side and was transfigured before the eyes of Apostles Peter, James and John.
When Transfiguration Parish in St. Louis closed, the parish gave its six wooden bas-relief statues depicting the Transfiguration to St. James, which is named for one of the Apostles in the Bible scene.
Father Mark Bozada, St. James pastor, looked at hundreds of examples of icons and paintings in European and Russian cathedrals, depicting the scene and in the end decided he wanted something original for his small sanctuary, whose walls and ceiling that are clad in aged pine.
Webster Groves muralist Rob Dreger created the original backdrop that anchors the full scene.