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Catholicism in Potosi
The History of St. James Church
Vincentian Father John Timon
Catholicism's roots in the area of Potosi date back to the early period of exploration by the French. From 1720 - 1793, the Jesuit Fathers of Kaskaskia, Illinois, ministered to the Catholics in the area of Washington County. After 1793, the Vincentian Fathers from Ste. Genevieve and "The Barrons" (called Perryville) came periodically to care for the Catholics in the region. When Vincentian Father John Timon (also referred to in records as Father Tyman) arrived in Potosi around 1825, (known as Mine au Breton at that time until 1826) he found that a small wooden church building had been erected some time previously, duly named "The Potosi Chapel." Father Timon serviced the Catholic community and took care of their spiritual needs, baptizing, marrying couples, anointing the sick, hearing confessions and celebrating Mass.
After a canonical parish was founded in 1829, Father Jean Boullier, C.M., became the first resident priest of Washington County. He acquired a half acre lot. The land was donated on May 20, 1829, to Bishop Joseph Rosati of the Diocese of Upper Louisiana. The donation was made for the purpose of erecting a church. When Father Philip Borgna, C.M., succeeded Father Boullier, he arranged for the construction of the church on the donated land in 1831. It was a brick building, 52 x 40 feet, with a plastered interior. It had a bell tower and a repository for the Blessed Sacrament. There was neither a baptismal font nor a confessional chair. The new church was consecrated by Bishop Rosati in 1834.
The church was regularly visited by Fathers Borgna and Boullier from Old Mines until 1835, when Father Lewis Tucker, a secular priest, became it's pastor. Father Tucker won the affection of his parishioners for his hard work in their behalf. Father Tucker remained in Potosi until 1844. While he was pastor, Father Tucker resided with various families in Potosi, but began plans for construction of a rectory between the church and the cemetery. The rectory (a two room building) was completed in 1844, under Father Joseph Wiseman, who succeeded Father Tucker.
The Third Church - Our Present Church. In 1854, land was purchased to build a church, rectory and school. T. W. Brady was hired to design the church. The cornerstone was placed in 1859, and the building was completed in 1861 and was consecrated by Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick. Our present church, measures 76 feet 6 inches x 40 feet 6 inches. The brick exterior is made of clay mud from the Frank White farm and hand-molded by slaves and has a three-tiered tower. Without a resident pastor at this time, the construction of the church went under the supervision of the "saintly" Father James Fox, pastor at Old Mines and Father Butler.
The beginning of the Civil War in 1861 found citizens of Potosi divided in their sympathies, and they went on record in May of 1861, in favor of armed neutrality. In the same month however, Federal troops took over Potosi, forcing citizens to take sides. Some joined the Union troops, while others helped to form Confederate companies behind rebel lines. There were a number of skirmishes and raids by Southern troops during the war, but it was in 1864 that Potosians came under a major attack by General Joe Shelby. A story is told that the church became a refuge for women and children, and that the three-tiered tower was weakened from the impact of an artillery shell. During the war years, Father Fox had religious articles of the church moved to Allen's Cave. During war time, St. James church had no resident pastor. In 1866, Reverend Michael O'Reilly, who had just been ordained, was appointed to assist Father Fox at Old Mines. When parishioners of St. James heard this, they sent a delegation to Archbishop Kenrick to remind him of his promise to send a resident pastor. Mr. Joseph Connolly had set aside quarters in his own home on strength of that promise.
Father O'Reilly thus was transferred in the fall of 1866 to St. James Parish, residing with the Connolly family while construction of a rectory next to the church went on. The pastoral residence was completed the same year.
A rather interesting incident involved Father O'Reilly in 1871. Two men, John Armstrong and Charles Jolly, had been tried and convicted for five murders, and were sentenced to the gallows. Father O'Reilly and three priests from St. Louis were scheduled to give the convicted men the last rites. The priests went into the courthouse where they gave the last rites to Armstrong and Jolly; they accompanied them to the gallows along with several officials. The priests spoke briefly and quietly to the two men, then Father O'Reilly addressed the crowd gathered: "The men here present and now to be executed have been condemned judicially by the court of this county. Whether tried correctly or not, it is not for us to say. They only wish to say that they desire to plead neither guilty nor not guilty. If they are guilty, God knows it. If they are not guilty, God knows it. The evidence seems to say they are, and in the eyes of the law they are guilty and worthy of death. But they desire to die pleading neither one way nor the other." The bodies were left hanging for three days, then were taken down and buried in St. James cemetery. It was reported that no one else claimed the bodies nor offered a burial site for them.
Since the completion of the present church in 1861, a number of changes have taken place. Although there was a story that the three-tiered original tower was weakened when hit by an artillery shell during the Civil War, the tower stood until the need of repairs in 1890. In 1905, pillars were installed in the church to take the weight of the roof off the walls. To cover the steel rods now holding the walls together, a false ceiling was put in. This ceiling, composed of tongue-and-groove wooden planks, was considered an "amazing piece of carpentry." The strain put on the church walls by the weight of the roof caused a bow-like effect that can still be seen by looking down along the outer walls.
Discussions about building a school were held, and ground-breaking ceremonies were held on July 12, 1950, with Most Reverend John P. Cody, auxiliary bishop of St. Louis, officiating. The school formally opened on September 2, 1951, with an enrollment of 100 students. There were three classrooms servicing eight grades, with three nuns as the faculty.
After the school closed in 1969, the school and hall have been used for parish activities: the Parish School of Religion, Picnics; Fish Fries; and a number of social events.
St. James Catholic Church is as strong as ever in the New Millennium and, as always, looks to further Christ's work.
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