St. Patrick's of Armagh Church in Catawissa

Locals refer to it as the Old Rock Church

Few buildings in the rural reaches of eastern Missouri have a more often-told history than St. Patrick’s Old Rock Church in Catawissa — a Missouri limestone structure that sits on a bend of Rock Church Road near its junction with Highway NN.

The historic church will host its annual homecoming picnic Sunday, Aug. 18. Free parking will be available on the church grounds.

The cost for the family-style chicken and beef dinner is $13 for adults and $6 for children 4 to 12. The ticket booth will open at 9 a.m. Mass will start at 11 a.m. and the picnic will run from noon to 6 p.m.

Constructed to serve Catholics in the newly established community of Catawissa — named for the hometown of the first set of stonemasons to work on the church — the 19th-century building was both beautiful and durable.

Catawissa Pennsylvania stonemasons, recruited to construct the stone church, laid the first stones in 1861, but work stopped with the outbreak of the Civil War when parishioners and stonemasons went to join the force of their choice.

As a result of the halt, two distinct methods of construction are still visible to the naked eye.

The first stonemasons carved the Missouri limestone so precisely no mortar was needed to fit the stones together. When work resumed, the mortar was used to complete the stonework.

Observers can see the mortar lines between the stones on the upper church.

Through pioneer settlement, war, a hazardous fire and declining population, St. Patrick’s has survived thanks to the lifelong dedication of two individual men and their connection to the Protestant families in the church vicinity.

St. Patrick’s was sanctified at the close of the Civil War when the far-flung farm families and recently immigrated railroad workers were forging a community.

The architect’s name was not recorded, but Patrick McBrearty deeded seven acres of land for the church, priest’s home and cemetery. Father Philip Grace raised funds to start construction.

Father Edward Berry, who presided there as pastor for 70 years, finished the work. The first Mass was celebrated on Easter Sunday in 1866.

Father Berry was more than a country priest. He was a community builder who formed a benevolent society to care for the cemetery, built and stocked a lending library, and chaired a debating society to encourage education.

He forged relationships with area Protestants that still remain and continue to astound modern Catholic leaders. He inaugurated the annual summer picnic, which, in the 1870s, lasted all day and evening, to cement community togetherness.

Following Father Berry by 60 years, the late Billy Murphy, who died in May 2018, would impact the life of the abandoned parish for another 45 years and spearhead the restoration of the parish complex.

Thanks to a lifetime commitment, a prodigious memory and the ability to inspire others, Murphy and a core of St. Patrick faithfuls, reorganized Father Berry’s annual picnics in 1973, raising more than $1 million to restore and maintain the country church and grounds.

Today, a corps of five lifelong participants vow to keep Murphy’s picnic program alive. They make up the St. Patrick’s Old Rock Church Preservation Society, including David Murphy, president; Matt Pross, first vice president; Steve Conley, second vice president; John Painter, treasurer; and Laura Conley, secretary.

“It does take Matt (Pross), Steve (Conley) and me to do what my grandfather did,” David Murphy said. “But luckily, he built strong relationships with what he called this church family. Because of him, St. Patrick’s became a community we can count on.”