History

In the fall of 1870, Ed McGuire, his wife, two sons and a daughter came to Norton in a covered wagon from Kentucky. This was the first Catholic family that settled in Norton County. At this time, Norton was a part of the St. Joseph’s KS parish in the Diocese of Leavenworth, Kansas.

Thereafter, other Catholic settlers came one at a time during the early and late seventies. The Conarty family came in 1871; the O’Keefe’s in 1872, O’Toole’s in 1874; Martin, Gleason, Keating, and Browne families came about 1879 and settled in the Norton area.

About 25 Catholic families lived here within the first year of the arrival of the McGuire’s. Within five years there were 80 families; within ten years about 100 families settled and were scattered throughout the county. Ninety percent of the early Catholic population on Norton County was of Irish descent. They were farmers induced to come west by the promise of free land on which they could homestead.

Frank Garrity came in 1897 from Iowa. He became a merchant, was the Mayor of Norton for two terms, served as councilman often, and took a deep interest in the city and community affairs. H Milz (father of Marjorie Milz, a third grade teacher), who arrived in 1879, was a hardware merchant for half a century, served a term as Mayor of Norton, and kept records of weather and rainfall for many years. Tom Doyle and family came from Illinois in 1881. Joe Geraghty and family came in 1881. Many of the older settlers were born in Europe, especially Ireland before coming to America. There was no migration directly from Europe but they came from eastern states.

Among the soldiers of past wars was Patrick Conarty of the Civil War, who died at the age of 90. A soldier in a World War from this parish, Dr. F.D. Kennedy, M.D., was Norton’s highest ranking officer. Other military members were Joseph Casey, Hugh Kennedy, David L. Browne, Leo Gleason, LeRoy McMahon, and Henry Casey.

In 1878, Norton was made a station of the New Almelo, St. Joseph parish. During that summer, the first Mass was offered by Rev. Louis Mollier in Norton in a frame court house building, which later burned, and was on the corner of the same block of the present Court House. Father Mollier was born in 1846 in Savory, France, came to Kansas in 1869, and was ordained in 1873. He was assigned to St. Joseph, Kansas, where he was the pastor when he came to Norton to celebrate the first Mass here. Fr. Augustine Reichert attended Norton from October 1878 – February 1889. Fr. Reichert traveled in Cheyenne, Rawlins, Decatur, and Norton counties by a one-horse buggy. If he came  during the week, he would say Mass in sod houses of his parishioners. Fr. Reichert was a man past middle age, who gave up his home back in Ohio and came here to these western plains, states James O’Toole, to follow the cattle trails into the extreme western part of the state and down through the eastern border of Colorado to search for a scattered flock. He continued on theses journeys for nearly twenty years until he became feeble with age and was taken back to his home and later died in a hospital there.

The Concordia Diocese was established in 1887. Most Rev. Richard Scannell was the first bishop. The See was later moved to Salina.

Rev. B. Fitzpatrick, a diocesan priest with residence at Belleville, Kansas, came to Norton March 30, 1889 and baptized James Casey. He served the parish as a mission until he was appointed first resident pastor by Bishop Scannell from November 28, 1889 to September 1890. He also was pastor at Oberlin. During this time the parish was known as the Church of the Nativity of Our Blessed Lord.

Also serving during this time was Fr. August Heimann, an itinerant priest. Fr. William Wenzel served the parish 1890-1891. Until 1895 this newly organized parish was a mission from Dresden (Leoville), Jewell City, and Colby. The parish became the center of missionary activity for Rev. Daniel Horgan, who attended stations from Jewell County, Kansas to Burlington, Colorado. Records show that Father Browne, Father Disselkamp, and Father Healy also offered Masses during the years until 1898. From baptismal records, it is interesting to note that for several years the parish priest at Norton had baptized people in counties as far west as Sherman, Wallace, and Logan. In November of 1893, Father Dan Horgan moved to Norton, making Norton, rather than Colby, the center of his parish. Fr. Horgan, in the summer of 1895, became Norton’s second resident priest and ended Norton’s title of being a Mission. Bishop Hennessey of the Wichita Diocese, appointed Fr. Horgan as pastor at Norton. Before Fr. Horgan came to Colby, he was an assistant at the Wichita Cathedral, later becoming a Concordia Diocesan priest.

John H. Browne, of Norton, states that Fr. Horgan moved from Colby to Norton prior to Browne’s marriage in the fall of 1895. Frank Ward Sr. also states that he and Pat McCue, who were somewhat of local politicians at the time, visited Fr. Horgan at the rectory in the fall of 1896 to see if they could not get him to vote the Populist Ticket and support William Jennings Bryan. Father told them emphatically that he would not. “Then how would it be,” returned Mr. McCue, “if we take our support away from you, Father?” “I ask none of fellows for money. I have plenty of my own. It is no one’s business for whom I vote,” was Fr. Horgan’s reply. The politicians left without gaining support, which would mean much influence to them locally to have Fr. Horgan on their side. Nor has Mr. Ward forgotten this amusing incident, as he relates it here.

There was only one period of time after the appointment of the first resident priest at Norton that the parish did not have a resident priest. It was then for the first time that Norton became a Mission, a town with a church but no resident priest. That period was from July 1890 to July 1895, occasioned possibly because of the withdrawal of the Precious Blood Fathers from the diocese.

Fr. William Wenzel from Dresden attended Norton from August 1890 to August 1891 and was succeeded by Fr. Michael Browne, a diocesan priest at Jewell City from August 1891 to July 1893.

During Fr. Browne’s administration, Fr. Doyle of St. Louis, MO gave a week’s Mission in November in Norton’s first church. "The Norton Champion" issue of November 24, 1892, states that "Father Doyle was a fine orator." On Thursday of this Mission Week, Fr. Browne set out on a sick call. Christie Martin, then a young lad of eleven, drove him in his wagon and team. They had gone only a few blocks on Main Street west of the present Ward Garage, (now Destination Kitchen), when the team shied at a baby carriage. Fr. Browne took the reins in his hands and for support placed his feet on the dashboard in front. The dashboard broke and Fr. Browne went out between the horses' legs and the wagon. This is what the "Champion" chronicled in its issue of December 1, 1892, regarding this accident. "Fr. Browne was severely cut about the head and remained at Tom McCue's house close by for several days. He is all right again. The boy was uninjured."

Fr. Healy, from Jewell City, was the next Mission priest to attend Norton, but his administration lasted only six or seven weeks. During his brief charge, he united J.E. Gleason and Miss Elizabeth Hiney in marriage.

Fr. Henry Leydeckers was instrumental in bringing several German families to Norton. In 1899, Jake Cibolski, George Brinkmeier, and H.C. Beckman families settled in the area. The Mike Donovan family came in 1900. In 1901, Joseph and Catherine Wetter and their family settled here from the Hanover, KS area. The Tom McGirl's came to Norton County. By 1936, there would be a 50/50 membership of Irish and German nationalities. Fr. Leydeckers owned a Newfoundland dog, of who he said, got into more trouble than anything else in Norton. "If the dog likes you, he welcomes you to the rectory door; but if he didn't, the dog was more demonstrative."

The original name of the Norton parish was the Church of the Nativity of Our Blessed Lord. The members purchased a two story wooden frame school building for a cost of $600, although another report states the purchase price was $300-$400. The parish acquired this frame schoolhouse on the site of the present Washington School site (Unified Office) at North Kansas and Waverly. The building was then moved to West Woodsfield and First Street and used as a church for ten years.

Only the second story of the old frame school building was used by the parish. The second floor was converted into a church by the removal of a partition separating two classrooms, and a small portion of that same floor was converted as Norton's first rectory. The first floor was not fit to use, as the windows were for the most part without glass and that floor was also given over to pigeons, sparrows, and swallows. No large sums of money were donated for this building, but it was paid for through collection of small sums from many donors. Although converted into a church, the building was never officially dedicated. The date of the first Mass may have been September 30, 1889, the only date that month in which baptism was administered. Bishop Richard Scannell administered Confirmation in this building on May 27, 1890 to 80 parishioners. This was Norton's first Confirmation class, and it is the largest to recorded date of 1936 - 37. The property was sold September 1, 1900 to H.M. Culter for $750. Sunday services, after the sale of the building, were held in the Gene Kennedy Hall and the Opera House in Norton. The old school building used as the first Catholic Church is no longer in existence. After it was sold, it was converted first into a dormitory for country students to board in town to go to school. Then it was torn down when Dr. Lathrop acquired it, erecting a residence thereon. He used some of the wood for the new residence. 

This parish, before it was organized, was at first, presumably, of the parish of St. Joseph, Kansas prior to October 1878. Then it was attached to New Almelo, Kansas from October to March 1889.

Fr. Leydeckers, pastor June 1898 - June 1901, purchased the present church site. This half block was bought for the present church with a cost of $400. Bill Simpson, who owned the block, called the Case addition, used the block for a corral for mules and wild horses that he would later sell. This site was purchased because it was considered to be more centrally located in the city and also contained the area for future development. The old house on the property served as the rectory. Fr. Daley and Fr. Tuite, later pastors, lived in it until the new rectory was built in 1915.

A church foundation was made of natural rock which was quarried and hauled to Norton and piled on Park Street, somewhere near the home of the McMahons. It was finally agreed that it was not the proper place and the rocks were moved about a block north of the Burlington depot. The foundation for the church was made with rocks from the Joseph Geraghty farm. Mr. Geraghty told Fr. Leydeckers that "money I have none, but if it's rocks you need, I have mountains of them on my farm a few miles south of Norton." The men of the parish were called, and with wagons, picks, and hammers quarried and hauled loads of rocks to Norton. St. Francis of Assisi Church is the only building of any kind ever to be erected on this site. All this time, Fr. Leydeckers kept encouraging more families to settle in this area. By 1901, there were 200 parishioners.

The present name St. Francis of Assisi was given as a suggestion by Rev. Richard Daly. In 1901, Fr. Daly said Mass in the Geraghty Hall and in the rectory during the winter months. The corner stone was laid in 1903. The reasons Fr. Daly choose St. Francis of Assisi were many. He had a great devotion to St. Francis of Assisi. When he arrived in Norton, November 12, 1901, there was absolutely not a particle of bed covers in the house, he recounts, and so he slept the first night in the old house with his overcoat as a covering. He said a prayer to St. Francis, patron saint of the poor, to find him some covers. The next day, when Fr. Daly made his wants known, Frank Ward brought him a blanket and comforter. Another reason to call the new parish St. Francis of Assisi was the number of men named Frank in the parish (Frank Ward, Frank Geragthy, J.F.Maxwell), and Bishop John Francis Cunningham had Frank in his name.

A few interesting coincidences have come to light in connection with the celebration of the 75th and 100th anniversaries of St. Francis Parish. Msgr. Richard Daly, in 1900, became Father Louis Mollier's first assistant priest. He was pastor of Norton during the laying of the cornerstone in 1903 and the building of the church. Msgr. Daly  was Vicar General of the Diocese and rector of Sacred Heart Cathedral when the present pastor, Msgr. Armand Girard, was ordained June 10, 1945. Msgr. Girard was first assigned as assistant to Msgr. Daly in Salina, and served as Vicar General of the Diocese while being pastor of the Norton parish.

The church was built of red face brick purchased in eastern Kansas. The rock, the window sills, and the door step were purchased at Beattie, Kansas. The limestone was from the Carmine farm, (he was not a Catholic) a few miles southwest of Norton, and the other lower rock was from the Mike Donovan farm, north of Norton. Several of the pioneer families helped quarry the stone. All the native rock was donated. The parishioners blasted, quarried, and hauled the foundation rock from these farms. They hauled all the other materials from the railroad siding and lumber yards. Apart from grading and a few minor items, all the rest of the labor was under contract to erect the church. Frank Ward, H.C. Beckman, Jim Ward, along with others, helped build the church.

Money for the new church was procured through contributions from the faithful. It was built for a total cost of $12,000. There were no large donors, as each gave as they could. The stained glass windows, which cost $35 each, were donated by various parishioners. The window in the east confessional area was donated by Daniel Casey. The window in the north confessional area was donated by Michael and Sarah Donovan. Along the north wall, from east to west, windows were donated by Henry Beckman, in honor of Peter and Mary Costello, in honor of Patrick and Elizabeth Carroll, by Fr. Glynn, in honor of Michael O'Toole. Along the south wall, from east to west, windows were donated in honor of John and Katie Gleason, in honor of Frank and Margaret Ward, by M.F. Garrity, by Father Wenzel, and by Kate, Mary, and Nora Fox. The south window in the former baptistery (currently the restroom renovated during Fr. Vincent Thu Laing's tenure) was donated in honor of Joseph and Annie Geraghty and the east window was donated in honor of Thomas and Bridget Keating. The rose window in the choir loft, depicting the patron of the parish, St. Francis of Assisi, was donated by Mr. and Mrs. M.L. Dandurand. With renovation and extension of the sanctuary the following windows were added. Above the north entrance is the all-seeing Eye of God. The large window in the sacristy was donated by St. Francis Society. Also located in the sacristy, above the entrance, is a window which pictures a shock of wheat. Above the west entrance, by the basement steps, the window shoes a sheave of wheat and the wording I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE. The Knights of Columbus donated the south window in the choir area. Above the southeast entrance, the Hand of God is illustrated in the window.

The church was completed prior to March 27, 1904, the date of the first baptism, that of Anna Katherine Wetter,(Dellere). Theresa Marie McMulkin was born on December 2, 1903 and would have been the first baby baptized in the new church but the weather was so cold, and the church wasn't heated, that she was baptized in the rectory. Both women were aunts to Barbara Wetter, Tacha. Nina Severns, Melroy adds the following information. Thomas and Onnie Fox, Melroy were the first couple married in the new church. Bernard Melroy, their son and husband of Nina, served Mass for Fr. Tuite.

The corner stone was laid in June 1903, the time of the big flood in Norton County. (Pictures can be viewed at the Court House.) Bishop Cunningham could not get nearer than Cawker City, and Fr. Wenzel was delegated to dedicate the corner stone. Fr. Wahlmeier preached the sermon. The first Mass was celebrated in February 1904. The church was dedicated May 3, 1904 by Rt. Rev. John F. Cunningham, D.D. After the dedication, a class of forty was confirmed by Bishop Cunningham.

When the church was being built, Rev. Richard Daly collected $8,000 for construction cost. It was one of the first brick churches to be erected in the diocese. The parish was free of debt in 1907 when Fr. Thomas Tuite was assigned as pastor.

Fr. Thomas Tuite was pastor from January 1907 until his illness and death in 1923. Fr. Tuite served as pastor for almost 16 years. He was taken ill and died April 3, 1923 in St. Joseph's Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. During his pastorate, improvements and repairs totaled $2,000. In 1907, they installed a furnace at a cost of $308, electrical wiring and frescoing was done in 1908 at a cost of $362.85 Mrs. Mary Godfrey donated a chalice in 1918 costing $165 and in 1920 she donated vestments costing $300.

In 1919, Clem Robbin (father of Clemmie Montoia) donated a bell costing $500. The bell was first rung for the noon Angelus. 

Fr. Patrick Cronin served St. Francis of Assisi parish from 1922-1923. Fr. John Fitzgerald served as pastor 1923-1926, as he succeeded Fr. Tuite in April. Improvements he made included $685 spent to make a concrete parking on the south side of church.

The original altar was solid oak with gold leaf on all the fancy beveled edges. The parishioners described it as being very lovely. The altar was painted white in Fr. Fitzgerald's time as pastor. Fr. Fitzgerald also put a new gate on the entrance of the communion railing which matched the altar railing. In painting the altar white, all the gold leaf was painted over. Then tooled paint was applied on the edges and smeared out in many places over the edge and turned black, spoiling the altar's beauty.

Fr. Sheehan served for the month of February 1 to March 1, 1926. Then Fr. Duchene was pastor March through September, until Fr. Michael Mulvihill came September 17, 1926.

Fr. Michael Mulvihill became pastor in September of 1926. At the suggestion of Fr. Mulvihill, major improvements were to put a church hall beneath the church with kitchen and equipment, installing a new steam heating system, and repainting the interior of the church. These changes to the church 1902-1926 were more than $18,999. In 1938, Fr. Mulvihill celebrated the 25th anniversary of his ordination.

 

 
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