The Early Years
This section of St. Paul, known as St. Anthony Park, home now to Saint Cecilia's Parish, was planned as a suburb between St. Paul and Minneapolis in 1873. The first homes in the area were built during the 1880's; most of the private residences in the park were constructed before 1930.
Catholics living in the area had three choices for attending Mass in these early days: they could hop on the Short Line train to either St. Paul or Minneapolis, or they could hike three miles to the chapel of St. Thomas Seminary, which opened in 1885.
In 1889, Saint Mark's Parish was formed and St. Anthony Park (as well as most of this west end of St. Paul) was included within its boundaries. Today there are at least five parishes where Catholics can worship in the same area, but back in 1890 the Catholic population of St. Anthony Park pretty much had to "hoof it" to church - a long, cold walk during the winter. But it gave neighbors a nice chance to chat with each other as they walked in a group to Mass on Sunday mornings. The pastor of Saint Mark's, Father Casey, was very interested in his parishioners from St. Anthony Park and usually held up the start of Mass until they arrived; he had his altar boys keep an eye out for the delegation coming down the road.
Father Casey urged some of his St. Anthony Park flock to organize a Sunday school for their children over here in the winter of 1886-87. These classes were taught in area homes more or less continuously until the mid-1920's when St. Cecilia's School was built.
A Church of Our Own
It was not until the winter of 1908 that the Eucharist was offered in the Park for the first time - Father William Hart organized "The Catholic Mission of St. Anthony Park" in rented quarters in the Odd Fellows Hall, which still stands at 977 Raymond Avenue. Masses were at 8:00 and 10:00 A.M. Seminarians from Saint Thomas conducted Sunday school at 2:00 P.M.
Around 1910 actions were taken to organize a parish: a census, fund raising, and organization of Church societies. The members of the mission were now ready to become a "real" parish with a church and a pastor of their own.
In July 1912, the Catholic Mission of St. Anthony Park received its first pastor, the Reverend Francis X. McDermott. He immediately set about collecting funds to erect a church. Although members of the newly formed parish were generous, it was still necessary to obtain a loan. Many banks in both cities were approached before one was found willing to grant a loan for $7,500.
The next major decision was where to build the new church; the north section of St. Anthony Park wanted it built there, while residents of the South Side favored their area. On October 19, 1912 the men of the parish decided to purchase three lots on the corner of Bayless and Cromwell for the sum of $2,850. The final cost for the finished construction added up to $23,000. It was a huge job building the church, and the many worries about costs and whether he had built too big a church weighed heavily on poor Father McDermott. His health gave out just days prior to the first Mass in the Church of St. Cecilia, celebrated on Sunday, May 18, 1913 with new pastor the Reverend Martin I. J. Griffin.
In 1914 Father P. R. Cunningham became the first resident pastor. Father Cunningham installed nearly all the ornamentation in the church, including the stained glass "rose" window above the altar - "Ecce Homo" of Guido Reni - and the round window depicting Saint Cecilia above the entrance to the church in the choir loft.
Between the Wars
Since the early days of the mission, deacons from the newly named Saint Paul Seminary had come each week to teach Sunday school. They continued to do so until the fall of 1918 when the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet took responsibility for the religious education of the children.
During the First World War, many young men from Saint Cecilia's served in the armed forces. The war was always present to the little, but active parish. The Aviation Corps quartered 3500 men in the neighborhood; over 500 of them were Catholics who attended a special Mass on Sunday Mornings. When the influenza epidemic struck the area, over 100 of these young men became ill and the new pastor, Father Doyle, went daily to visit the sick and dying.
After the war and throughout the 1920's Saint Cecilia's became an especially thriving parish with a membership at one time of 1000. The parish was a focal point for social gatherings as well as religious activity. The church was doing well financially and in 1923 a school was built on the property adjoining the rectory at 923 Bayless Avenue. First classes were held in 1924.
The 1930's brought a drastic change to St. Anthony Park and the parish community. The Depression years sucked much of the vibrant life from the parish that was enjoyed so much only a decade earlier. By 1938, when the church celebrated its 25th anniversary, there was no joy to the celebration. And to make matters worse, the world would soon be at war again.
In the 1950's and 60's the parish was to change even more. Industry was thriving in the Midway area, surrounding our neighborhood and separating it from the rest of St. Paul. Not only was industry intruding on the parish, but the growth of automobile traffic necessitated new highways, which almost caused the parish's demise.
Unfortunately, many parishioners lived in the path of progress - Interstate 94 and Highway 280. About a third of South St. Anthony Park was forced to look for new housing; many Catholics moved to new parishes. To the north, a new parish, Corpus Christi, was now serving many of our former parishioners. Few new families were moving into the parish to replace those who were forced to leave. Saint Cecilia's was severely affected. School enrollment dropped, membership decreased dramatically, forcing the school to close in 1968 and parish activities were curtailed due to fewer volunteers and an aging congregation.
However, some parishioners retained their loyalty even after they moved outside of Saint Cecilia's physical boundaries. It was this phenomenon that provided a base from which Saint Cecilia's stopped its decline and began a spiraling upwards of parish fortunes.
In the late 1960's and 70's many changes in the Roman Catholic Church affected Saint Cecilia's as much as most American churches; parochial education was reduced due to declining enrollment, increasing financial burdens and a reduced number of religious to staff schools.
In our parish, as in many parishes throughout the country, most parishioners sent their children to nearby public schools and had them attend religious classes at church rather than bus their kids to the nearest parochial school. This fundamental change in Catholic educational thinking from the 1920's through the 1960's was accelerated by the actions of Vatican II, where the laity had taken on additional roles in parish life. Besides the need for lay people to take responsibility for the education of the parish's youth, others were called upon to serve as lectors, ushers, Eucharistic ministers, parish council members and to volunteer in various committees, prayer groups, the nursery, and outreach groups.
This was a far cry from the traditional lay involvement in Saint Cecilia organizations, among them the Rosary Society, Young Ladies' Sodality, the Men's Club, the Catholic Order of Foresters, the Holy Name Society, and the Catholic Guild, none of which exist today in the parish.
This movement became all the more important at Saint Cecilia's as the former role of the full time resident pastor evolved into part-time clerical assignments. Beginning with Father Terrance Berntson in 1971, each succeeding pastor has served the Archdiocese in other capacities and has been available to Saint Cecilia's on a part-time basis. This has necessitated increased lay leadership and active involvement for Saint Cecilia's to return to its historical vitality.
Pastors of Saint Cecilia's
Father Francis Xavier McDermott, 1912-1913
Father Martin I. J. Griffin, 1913-1914
Father P. R. Cunningham, 1914-1916
Father James E. Doyle, 1916-1929
Father Alphonse Carey, 1929-1944
Father Leon Klein, 1944-1967
Father John O'Neill, 1967-1971
Monsignor Terrence Berntson, 1971-1973
Father John Kinney, Summer 1973
Bishop John R. Roach, 1973-1975
Father Michael O'Connell, 1973-1975 (assistant),
Father Michael Joncas, 1991-1993
Father Paul Jaroszeski, 1993-2004
Father J. Michael Byron, 2004-2012
Father Thomas F.A. O'Brien, 2012-2013
Father John Hofstede, 2014 - Present