Our Lady of Lourdes: A labor of love and faith for 100 years

Parish invites guests to explore the beauty and rich history of the church

Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church has a rich history, dating back 100 years, when Polish Catholic immigrants who had settled mostly on the west side of the Mississippi in Little Falls, finally built their own church on the west side.

To celebrate, the parish will open its doors to everyone interested in learning about its history and exploring the art and artifacts inside the church, Saturday and Sunday, June 17-18.

From its architecture, to the original stained glass windows, the statuary, the painting of Mary the Mother of God behind the altar, to the Black Madonna of Poland, the art tells the story and the history of the Polish immigrants’ desire to worship God and express their faith.

A book about the history of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, including many historic photos shared by congregants or stored in church archives, was written by John G. Lauer of Little Falls.

The book, which took more than a year to put together, details the desire to have a church in which the immigrants could worship in their native tongue, and their dedication, faith, work, fundraising and community  spirit to accomplish that. It also chronicles the priests, sisters, and community members who served the parish and the strides made over its 100-year history.

It is filled with names still familiar today, such as: Sobiech, Pierzinski, Gwost, Posch, Witt, Ringwelski, Stanek, Van Hercke, Ginter, Knoll, Lipinski, Masog, Wilczek, Wachlarowicz, Wielinski, Zilka, Ciminski, Deering, Jendro and more.

Some interesting and perhaps surprising items include the fact that the first Mass July 8, 1917, was celebrated in, of all places, a hotel — the Antlers Hotel.

The Polish people who lived on the west side of Little Falls and who wanted their own church, purchased the Antlers Hotel on Second Street Northwest in 1916 for $4,411. The first Mass of the Our Lady of Lourdes Parish would be celebrated in a temporary chapel in the hotel July 8, 1917.

The vacant hotel, located on Second Street Northwest in Little Falls, was purchased for $4,411 in 1916. It was remodeled at a cost of $17,000 to include a temporary chapel, a living space for the pastor, the teaching sisters, and even a few classrooms.

The congregation, led by their first pastor, Fr. John Musial, chose “Our Lady of Lourdes” as their patron, and in so doing, named their church.

Our Lady of Lourdes is the title of the Blessed Virgin Mary venerated in honor of the 18 times she appeared in 1858 to Bernadette Soubirous near Lourdes, France.

Since the parish intended to build a permanent church at some time, as funds were raised, the parish began buying the other lots and houses on the block of the hotel. Eventually every lot, except one, would belong to the parish.

That first year, 135 families joined Our Lady of Lourdes. Today, nearly 1,000 families belong to the parish.

The first death in the parish in April 1918, necessitated the purchase of more land for a parish cemetery. Five acres, 2.3 miles west of the church in Pike Creek Township was purchased for $550. Volunteers, inspired by a Sunday sermon from their pastor, smoothed and leveled the land.

Once the debt for the purchase and remodel of the hotel was paid off, Fr. Musial and the congregation set about the task of raising money to build a new church.

Many fundraisers were organized and held, and by 1921, $12,000, enough to begin, had been raised.

The architecture of Our Lady of Lourdes Church was designed by architect Victor Corella in the Baroque Revival Style, favored by the Polish people. He was born in 1872 in Krakow, Poland and immigrated to the U.S., when he was 21. Staff photo by Terry Lehrke

Victor Cordella, an architect from Minneapolis, was hired. Cordella (Wiktor Kordela) was born in 1872 in Krakow, Poland, to an Italian-born sculptor and a Polish-born artist. He studied architecture in western Ukraine before immigrating to the U.S., when he was 21.

He worked with a number of well-known architects, including Cass Gilbert (who designed the Antlers Hotel) and designed several churches in Minnesota.

Cordella designed the building in the “Baroque Revival” style, favored by the Polish people. The design featured round arches, elaborate towers with curving forms and onion domes, which identify it as a Polish church.

The church, 131 feet long and 80 feet at its widest point, would seat 500. Cordella’s plans included facing the church in brown brick, trimmed in gray granite, with a foundation of concrete and stone.

The cost was estimated at $60,000 to $70,000. The final cost was closer to $94,000.

Carl Kropp of St. Cloud, already known for his work in building the parochial school in Pierz, the high school building in Little Falls, as well as other churches, including the Catholic Church in Buckman, was hired to build the foundation and basement of the church for $11,000.

Polish Catholics who lived on the west side of Little Falls, donated much of their time, talent and treasure to build Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. Here is a photo of a group helping to excavate the basement for the church in 1923. Photo from Our Lady of Lourdes archives

The construction on the new church began July 8, 1921, with the digging of the foundation.

Parishioners volunteered their time, horses and equipment to help dig, but still went $2,000 over budget.

In February 1922, Hirt and Son out of St. Cloud was hired to build the church for $50,000.

For the inside of the church, the oak pews, the church facade and religious statues were purchased and ionic Corinthian pillars put into place.

Each of the stained glass windows was paid for by individual donors, whose names are included with the windows. These were designed, crafted and installed by the Witte Brothers Glass Company of Minneapolis. Staff photo by Terry Lehrke

Each of the stained glass windows was paid for by individual donors, whose names are included with the windows. These were designed, crafted and installed by the Witte Brothers Glass Company of Minneapolis.

Fr. Joe Herzing, the current and eighth pastor to serve the parish, said those windows are more than beautiful stained glass —  they show a lot of symbolism.

He’s been contemplating what each window symbolizes.

“In a pre-literate time, pictures and art are better to teach people than to pick up a book, if you’ve got 20 percent literacy,” he said. “The windows were made to tell a story that they would have easily read in those days.

“We are now sort of losing our ability to pick up symbols,” Fr. Joe said. “We don’t pay attention, because we can read about anything. The windows have a story.”

It’s the unpacking of the story of each window that intrigues the pastor.

“There’s a rich history here; it’s a cool thing and such a beautiful church,” Fr. Joe said.

Fr. John Musial, the first pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes purchased a copy of the painting of Walpole Immaculate Conception for $300. It hangs behind the main altar in the sanctuary. The original was painted in 1680 by the Spanish Baroque artist, Bartolome Esteban Murillo.

Two other unique pieces of art date back to the origins of the church.

Not long after the new church building was dedicated June 23, 1923, Fr. Musial traveled to Europe. He planned to stop in Lourdes, France, to visit the grotto of where the apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes occurred.

It was on that trip that, for $300, he would purchase a copy of the painting of Walpole Immaculate Conception. It hangs behind the main altar in the sanctuary. The original was painted in 1680 by the Spanish Baroque artist, Bartolome Esteban Murillo. It is housed in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The jeweled icon of the Black Madonna of Poland, “Our Lady of Czestochowa,” was purchased in Europe in 1923 by Our Lady of Lourdes’ first pastor, Fr. John Musial. It is one of the unique and historical pieces of art housed in the church. Staff photo by Terry Lehrke

Another find on that trip for Fr. Musial was the jeweled “Our Lady of Czestochowa” icon that hangs in the east niche of the church. He paid $124.53 for the piece.

Michael Retka, 22, said he has been interested in history all of his life and actually started digging around in the church archives in 2011. He credits his dad, Gene, for cultivating his interest. Gene wrote the history of St. Stanislaus Church in Sobieski.

Retka will be one of the parishioners sharing some of the history of the art with visitors over the open house weekend.

Retka said his favorite piece of history to talk about is the pipe organ. It has a special place in his heart, not just because he’s a musician, but because he had a hand in refurbishing it with Thor Lindquist, five years ago.

The Wicks Organ Company in Highland, Ill., designed and built the pipe organ, which was installed in 1941.

The special sounds of that organ will also be part of the upcoming anniversary celebration.

The pipe organ in the choir loft at Our Lady of Lourdes Church was installed in 1941 and refurbished just five years ago. Classically trained organist Jim Hager of Brainerd, will play the instrument from 7 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. Saturday, June 17.

Classically-trained organist Ken Hager of Brainerd, will play from 7 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. Saturday, June 17.

The doors of the church will be opened wide, allowing the music to waft into the streets for all to enjoy.

But before the concert, the open house is planned from 5:30 p.m. – 7 p.m. Saturday. People will be allowed to explore the church and see and hear about its art and history. Displays showing the history will be located throughout the church.

Downstairs, visitors can take a break and enjoy wine and beer sampling, as well as meat and cheese. Root beer floats will be available for the kids.

Outside, weather permitting, picnic tables will be set up on the church grounds for guests.

Retka said visitors will be invited to stay the evening to watch the fireworks provided by the Dam Festival. From the church grounds, they will be clearly visible shooting over the Mississippi.

Sunday, June 18, the Masses at 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. will be celebrated by Bishop Donald Kettler. Special visitors at the 10:30 a.m. Mass will include former parish priests, nuns and other distinguished guests.

In between Masses, “paczki” (pronounced punch-kee), coffee and juice, will be served at the Mary of Lourdes Middle School gym. Paczkis are Polish jelly-filled doughnuts, a favorite for “Fat Tuesday,” the day before Lent begins. Pete and Joy’s Bakery will provide the pastries.

Displays from the church’s archives and artifacts will be on display at the school as well. And beginning at noon, Gene Retka and the Jambolaires will entertain with polka music.

At 2 p.m., during a short program at the middle school, a time capsule buried beneath the cornerstone of the church, will be opened.

“We have no idea what’s in it,” Retka said, although he’s excited to find out.

If there’s space in the capsule, some items from the present will be added, before it is replaced for future generations.

Little Falls Granite Works will do the work to carefully remove the time capsule and then replace it, Retka said.

Also Sunday, dinner catered by the Falls Ballroom will be served in the church basement, beginning at 11 a.m.

The inside of the newly-constructed Our Lady of Lourdes Church in 1923. Photo from Our Lady of Lourdes archives

The menu includes turkey, Polish sausage, aluski, cheesey potatoes, beans, beverages and dessert, including Polish coffee cakes, made by the Christian Mothers.

So staff at the Falls Ballroom will know how much food to prepare, those who wish to eat dinner, are asked to RSVP to the church office, (320) 632-8243.

Copies of Lauer’s book on the history of Our Lady of Lourdes can be ordered that weekend as well.

A view of the front of Our Lady of Lourdes Church today, featuring the canvas behind the altar which was purchased in 1923 in Europe, by the first parish priest, Fr. John Musial. The canvas is a replica of the Walpole Immaculate Concep-tion, painted in 1680 by the Spanish Baroque artist, Bartolome Esteban Murillo. The original piece of art is housed at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Staff photo by Terry Lehrke