The Church of St. Stanislaus
Czech immigrants founded St. Stanislaus Parish, the fourth parish in St. Paul, in 1872. Many Czechs came to America because of agricultural depression, political repression, and compulsory military service in their native Bohemia. 1895-1930 saw the largest influx of Bohemians to St. Paul with many of them working as furriers or farmers once they had arrived. Initially, Czechs worshipped with the Germans at Assumption Parish because they had no church of their own. However, they did not know the language, so from 1861-1872, Father Peter Maly, a Czech priest from New Prague, MN traveled to St. Paul to minister to the Czech families here.
To form a parish, the community had to procure over 40 acres of cleared land. The Most Reverend Bishop Thomas Grace gifted them with a piece of land to build a church. In 1872, the Czech and Polish parishioners built
St. Stanislaus of Kostka, a small frame church, 60×26 feet.
The Czech immigrants who started St. Stanislaus were much like the saint after whom the church is named. It is said of St. Stanislaus Kostka, “God asked a fearfully hard thing of him; to leave his people, his home; to undergo no end of hardships and humiliations; to live in a strange land, among strange people.” William T. Kane S.J.
St. Stanislaus Kostka
St. Stanislaus Kostka, the namesake of St. Stanislaus Church, was born in 1550 of a noble Polish family in Mozovia, Poland. When he was 16, he became very sick and was dying. Our lady and the infant Jesus appeared to him and told him to become a Jesuit. His fever left immediately. His father was the Lord of Kostkov and did not approve of him joining a religious order, so Stanislaus secretly left home, dressed as a peasant, and begged for food and lodging as he walked the 400 miles to Augsburg.
On the journey, he stopped to receive communion but mistakenly went to a Lutheran church. There, a host of angels descended to bring him communion. He went on to Rome and became a Jesuit novice.
He predicted his own death on August 13, 1568 and died at the age of seventeen. In 1671 he became the patron saint of Poland and is known for his devotion, peacefulness, and goodness.
In1874, Father Steinocher arrived from Bohemia and was assigned as the first Czech pastor of St. Stanislaus parish. He had a very difficult time with the small, poor parish because of the discord and conflict that came about because the Polish parishioners were jealous that a Czech was their pastor. He left and was followed by Father Onufrius Stroelke, a Pole. Even he could not accomplish much with his countrymen, and he left after a year. In 1877 a Czech priest, Father Frantisek Tichy, was appointed to St. Stanislaus. He wanted to build a rectory instead of having priests live in private or rented apartments. He saved up his salary of $400 a year for three years and bought land on which to build a rectory. The Poles didn’t want to contribute money toward the Czech rectory, and so after much disagreement and fighting, the Poles left the church in 1880 and built St. Adelberts. That year, Father Tichy left for New Prague and priests from the cathedral administered to St. Stanislaus until Father Peter Maly returned to the parish. He was treated poorly by the parishioners and left after one year. Father Honoratus Povolny became the pastor in 1882 and remained for two years.
Finally, Father John Rynda, a recent immigrant from Moravia, was called to the church in 1886. He remained the pastor at St. Stanislaus for nearly forty years and under his care, the church prospered. During that time, a large brick church was built with Gothic altars and paintings of the patron saints of the Czech people. The parishioners paid $16,000 for the construction of the church and its interior. It was adorned with three beautiful altars and a large organ and was proclaimed as one of the most beautiful churches in the city. In 1905, Father Rynda collected $2500 from the parish and decorated the church with oil paintings of beloved saints and he surprised them by donating the Stations of the Cross in oil colors. Other societies in the church donated statues of their patrons on the alter and around the church. It was declared “Czech Heaven” by Archbishop Ireland.
In 1886 when Father Rynda finished the new church, the old church was converted into a school and three sisters of Notre Dame were the first teachers. School desks were made from the old pews. There were seventy children enrolled in the three-room school. This school was torn down and a four-room brick school was built in 1902. The first graduation was held in1911 with 10 pupils graduating. During World War I, 58 former students of St. Stanislaus School were in the United States Army and Navy. The school children did their part by buying war stamps, making bandages, sweaters, stocking and scarves for the soldiers, and enlisting in the Red Cross society. During this time, a parish hall was also built to accommodate meeting and conventions.
Father Rynda was also instrumental in bringing the benevolent society, Catholic Workman, to St. Paul and in this way provided death benefits for parishioners and kept the love of the Czech nation. In May 1924 when Father Rynda retired, the church had grown from sixty to three hundred families.
In the beginning, St. Stanislaus had many organizations and societies that each had their role in the church. St. Wenceslaus Society was the oldest, beginning before 1880. The Knights of St. George, formed in 1882, was a Catholic fraternity that marched in parades and formed an honor guard for special occasions. The Rosary Society was started by Father Rynda in the late 1880’s and was made up of older women who kept up the church. St. Stan’s social club sponsored social activities and served at parish bazaars and festivals. The Mothers’ Club was organized in April 1928 by Mrs. Martin Liska and Sister Aemiliana. The club raised money and bought Christmas gifts for the sisters and priests, paid for coffee urns, an organ, and stained glass windows for the church. They also donated items to the school and books to needy students, kept the school restrooms clean, organized parties and picnics for the students, and supported various charities. Other societies included: St. Paul Society, St. John Society, St. Procopius Society, St. Joseph Society, Young Ladies’ sodality, St. Ludmilla sodality, St. Stanislaus Boys’ society, Sacred Heart of Mary society, Society of the Immaculate Conception, St. Cecilia Choir, St. John gymnastic club, Lumir Dramatic club, and St. Stanislaus literary club.
Father Alphonse Kotouc was appointed to St. Stanislaus in 1924. There are varying accounts of the priest. One says he was very successful and brought in many new families. Another says that in 1927, St. Stanislaus Mothers’ Club petitioned the Archbishop to replace Father Kotouc. He was not popular since English was introduced into the mass and the mothers said he would not baptize those who did not financially support the church. They were not successful in their efforts and Father Kotouc pastored fifteen years at St. Stanislaus until his retirement in 1939. At this time, they also stopped using the Czech language in the school and church.
On April 15, 1934 the entire church was destroyed by fire. Just after a children’s mass, with over 800 people in attendance, had ended, a woman ran to tell the priests that smoke was coming from the walls and sanctuary floor. The fire department was notified and the priests and the people carried out the Blessed Sacrament as well as sacred vessels and altar vestments before the fire overtook the church. The Little Infant of Prague statue was the only one small enough to carry out. It was a windy day and embers set fire to twenty-seven rooftops. Within three hours the fire had burned itself out and there was only a skeleton of the walls left. The fire marshal declared the cause as faulty wiring that spread throughout the hollow walls before it was discovered. Only a portion of the loss was covered by insurance. In the middle of the Great Depression, the parishioners did not have enough money to build a new church and so mass was held in the parish hall.
In 1939, Father Wenceslas Jiracek was inducted as pastor and, along with assistant, Father Vacek, oversaw the building of the third, and currant, church in 1940 at a cost of $100,000. Architect Cyril Pesek designed the church in the English Gothic design. Most of the statues were donated by societies and parishioners donated stained glass windows. The first mass was offered in the new church on May 5, 1941 to over 1,000 people. The crowd was so large, a public address system had to be used for those who had to sit in the basement. The Knights of St. George formed an honor guard for Archbishop Murray as he circled the church, blessing it. A duplex was bought behind the church and remodeled into the rectory. In 1958, the church was redecorated and included a new altar.
During this time, there were many assistant priests including: Father Vacek in 1939, Father Leander in 1946, Father Ischler in 1948, Father Cepress in 1950, and Father Womback. Father Bastyr came in 1946 for two years as Father Jiracek left due to poor health. In 1947 Father Jiracek returned but was unable to run the parish on his own so Father Richard Skluzacek became the administrator and ran the parish until 1966, with Father Raymond Moorman as an associate. During this time, the kids quickly outgrew the space in the school. A room in the basement of the church and the cold, unheated parish hall were used for two classrooms until 1951. In 1951, the school was remodeled and an addition of four rooms was added. The school had 300 students and was run by seven School Sisters of Notre Dame. A great variety of activities were carried on by the School Sisters including: First Communion classes, May and Forty hour processions, graduations, scapular leagues, music, spelling, athletic, community chest poster contests, paper sales, Sisters picnics, jubilee celebrations, retreats, and workshops. Many priests and sisters were educated at St. Stanislaus as children.
In 1966, Father Jiracek retired and was followed by Father Charles Jirik, and Father Alfred Skluzacek, “Father Al,”in 1967. Father Al was known around the West 7th area for trying to improve the quality of life and help the poor in the neighborhood. Father Ross Bigot was the priest at St. Stanislaus in 1974.
In 1975, Father John Clay, the first non-Czech priest, took over and remains at the parish today. He ushered in the changes brought about by Vatican II such as English being spoken throughout the mass, and the alter facing the people. In the late 1970’s, the communion rail was removed to open up the sanctuary and the alter was raised to make it more visible to the parishioners. The communion rail was made into a new alter, pulpit and kneeling benches. The baptistery off to the side was made into a reconciliation room and elevator, and the baptismal gate is now found at North High Bridge Park, a few blocks from the church. In 1982, the school was leased out and eventually sold to a Montessori daycare. The congregation is now a mixture of ethnicities and has grown to over 1000 families. The church’s mission today is to be a safe and welcoming parish for all.
Checking on the Czechs: A History of St. Stanislaus Church, St. Paul, Kris Masek, 1988.
Gateway to a New World: Building Czech and Slovak Communities in a new World. West 7th/Fort Road Federation. 2003.
History of Czechs in America. Dr. Jan Habenicht, 1996, Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International. pp. 277-281.
For Greater Things: The Story of Saint Stanislaus Kostka William T. Kane S.J