By Celine Klosterman
ST. PAUL — One hundred seventy five years after the seeds of St. James Parish were planted, the pioneering spirit of its ancestors remains in the community, according to Sister Mary Dingman, SSSF.
Many descendants of the parish’s founders belong to St. James today, the parishioner said. Those descendants were among Catholics who gathered July 14 for Mass with Bishop Martin Amos, dinner and a concert by the band L’Angelus to celebrate the 175th anniversary of St. James, the second-oldest parish in the Diocese of Davenport. It was another milestone in a history that began in 1838, when the first baptisms took place at the parish’s original site in Sugar Creek. There, Germans had settled 2 ½ miles southeast of modern-day St. Paul.
Two years later, Father John Alleman began serving Catholics in Fort Madison and in the mission communities of West Point and Sugar Creek, where a log church was built. But he transferred Sugar Creek services to West Point in the late 1840s, according to a parish historical account.
A second church was later built in St. Paul, followed in 1883 by St. James’ existing church building. In 1891, a lit chandelier fell during a parish mission service and sparked a fire that ruined the latter church’s interior. The building was rededicated in 1893.
Catholic education has long played a vital role in the community, Sr. Dingman said. Malinckrodt Sisters came to the parish to teach in 1874, followed in later years by Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and members of Sr. Dingman’s order, the School Sisters of St. Francis of Milwaukee.
Construction of school facilities took place in 1910, 1951 and 1955. In 1946, St. James added a high school to its elementary school. Current parishioner Bert Holtkamp recalled riding a pony from his family’s farm to St. James School, which he attended from first to 10th grade in the 1930s and ‘40s. “They couldn’t get the money for all the high school to be built there, so I finished up at St. Mary’s in West Point,” he said.
By 1966, 229 students had graduated from St. James High School. That year, it merged with St. Mary’s in West Point to form Marquette; St. John’s in Houghton joined them soon afterward. Father Francis Schaefers, St. James’ pastor, suggested the new school system’s name in memory of Father Jacques Marquette, a 17th-century Jesuit missionary who explored the Midwest, said Priscilla Holtkamp, Bert’s wife.
In 2005, Marquette schools consolidated with rival Aquinas schools in Fort Madison to form Holy Trinity.
Amid the changes, St. James Parish has maintained its annual God’s Acre Sale fundraiser for Catholic education. Fr. Schaefers inspired the first event in 1952 after cleaning out the rectory attic and discovering items to auction off, according to parish history. Some farmers pitched in by donating part of their crops to the sale, which raised $500, Bert said. He was one of the four coordinators of that first event and is the only one still living.
“Everyone had so much fun, they decided every farmer should give the proceeds from one acre to God,” Priscilla said. Buyers at the October auction of mostly grain and livestock sometimes bid double the market value in order to raise extra funds for the school, Bert said. Last year, the sale brought in $178,000 for Holy Trinity.
“Everyone in the parish is given a job to do to make that dinner and auction a success,” Sr. Dingman said. “The community has a very good spirit of working together.”
In that collaborative spirit, St. James clustered with St. John’s in Houghton after losing a resident pastor in 1983. On July 1, Father Bruce DeRammelaere began ministering to both communities following Father Gary Beckman’s nine years of service to the parishes.
Several years ago, the interior of St. James Church was renovated. At the site of the original church in Sugar Creek, Catholics gathered in 1988 to celebrate their parish’s 150th anniversary.
Today, about 140 families belong to St. James. “We’re a small community, but very close knit,” Sr. Dingman said. “There is strong faith in our families and our parish.”
Vocations from St. Paul
According to St. James Parish, 38 parishioners have become Sisters, eight parishioners have been ordained priests, and one man has become a Brother. Parish native Maurice Dingman, now deceased, served as bishop of the Des Moines Diocese from 1968 to 1986.