From fish fry Fridays to “The Bell” that has moved with the parish from old to new Valmeyer, St. Mary Catholic Church has been a staple of Monroe County.
To be exact, it has been a fixture in the village for 100 years.
The church is celebrating its centennial this weekend with Bishop Michael McGovern presiding over Saturday evening and Sunday morning Mass.
An RSVP-only chicken dinner will follow Saturday’s 5 p.m. Mass, and coffee and donuts will follow the 9 a.m. Sunday Mass.
The milestone anniversary marks the perfect time to reflect on the church’s long history – floods and all.
St. Mary Church of the Seven Dolors of the Blessed Virgin was first established in what is now considered Old Valmeyer on March 24, 1921, as a mission church off of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Harrisonville.
As the hustle and bustle from Harrisonville’s port community waned and Valmeyer grew, Rev. Bishop Henry Althoff decided to make St. Mary the main church, according to a special booklet created for the current church building.
“After the river traffic waned and the railroad took off more, Valmeyer got bigger than Harrisonville, so then they made St. Mary the main church and St. Francis became the mission for a while and then eventually they closed St. Francis,” church secretary Penny Heusohn explained.
The 1940s proved to be a difficult decade for the people of Valmeyer. Multiple floods caused parishioners to repeatedly have to shovel mud out of the parish, yet the building remained intact.
In 1967, the church expanded when Bishop Albert R. Zuroweste dedicated a parish center. The building was located on the west end of Old Valmeyer. Over a decade later, the church was extensively remodeled and on Mother’s Day 1993, a marble sculpture of the church’s patron saint made its way from Italy to the church.
The church faced a tragedy later that summer with the Flood of 1993, which sent residents scrambling to higher ground. When the levee finally broke on Aug. 3, the parishioners knew their beloved church building was destroyed.
“The flood of ‘93, there could have been 20 feet of water in that building then, because … it covered some houses,” Heusohn, a lifelong member of the church, recounted. “It was pretty much destroyed.”
Heusohn explained that because the former site of St. Mary was located on a flood plain, the church could not rebuild at that same spot. This did not stop the church from meeting, though, as parishioners remained just as active as ever.
The congregation met in several places before the new church building opened its doors in late 1995.
First, church members met at Immaculate Conception in Madonnaville before moving operations to Gibault Catholic High School.
The church members were forced to relocate once again when a fire engulfed much of the Gibault library, including many of St. Mary’s belongings, on New Year’s Day 1995.
Parishioners then began holding services in trailers the Federal Emergency Management Agency plotted at the Monroe County Fairgrounds. Special holiday masses were shared with the Madonnaville church.
Eventually, the present-day building in New Valmeyer was finished and held its first service on Christmas Eve 1995. As an August 1995 article from the Republic-Times archives stated, the church kept many of its parishioners while moving.
Heusohn said this speaks volumes of the village.
“We were a small town and everybody knew everybody and you liked everybody, so people just wanted to stay together and they wanted their kids to go to the Valmeyer school,” Heusohn said, later adding, “Maybe not everybody moved back, but they still go to this church because it’s home.”
Over the years, St. Mary has made a name for itself during fish fry Season. Heusohn proudly proclaimed her church has “the best fish fry in the county!” and was voted such in a survey.
She said the church’s homemade “chippers” are hallmarks of the Friday tradition. She explained “chippers” are essentially homemade potato chips tossed in the church’s special seasoning.
St. Mary is also known for its fall church picnics, which it hosts along with next door neighbor St. John United Church of Christ. The two churches also partner to host Vacation Bible School in the summer.
“There’s strength in numbers,” Heusohn said of the church partnership. “When you are going to have something, you’re going to need workers, and (so) with the two churches working together, you have enough people to do all the jobs for the picnic and things like that. It’s just camaraderie, the two churches get along well.”
For more information on St. Mary’s history, visit stmaryvalmeyer.org.