St. Benedict Parish celebrates 125th anniversary

Alex Lee
St. Benedict Church
St. Benedict Church celebrates its 125th anniversary this weekend.  The current building was dedicated in 1907.

St. Benedict Catholic Church in Shawnee will be celebrating its 125th anniversary this weekend. The theme of the celebration is “125 Plus One Anniversary Celebration,” alluding to the fact that the 125th anniversary actually occurred last year. However, due to COVID restrictions, the church was unable to organize a parish-wide celebration.

The celebration will begin Saturday with an anniversary Mass at 4:30 p.m. followed by a potluck dinner at the Benedict Center. The Mass and dinner are open to all parishioners. The church will provide the meat, bread, drinks and a special anniversary cake. Those attending the dinner are asked to bring a selection of two dishes, either salad, vegetable, pasta, casserole, fruits or dessert. Special guests for the occasion are the Benedictine monks from St. Gregory’s Abbey.

“Celebrating 125 years is a testament to the faith of the parishioners and their dedication to knowing and loving Jesus Christ,” said the Rev. Joseph Schwarz, pastor. “God has blessed St. Benedict’s with many good people who live their faith each and every day. I am blessed to be able to serve God and the wonderful people here.”

During the celebration dinner, the Celebration Committee will present a Powerpoint presentation of the history of the church. Attendants will also be able to view the various memorable anecdotes written by parishioners.

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Each parish family will also receive a special gift for the 125th celebration.

Divine Mercy Prayer Garden, St. Benedict Church

On Sunday, the church will have an open house for the public from 2 to 4 p.m. Guided tours will be given. During the open house, the public will have an opportunity to view and ask questions about the various objects and customs of the Catholic Church. One area of special interest is the 22 large stained glass windows around the church. The windows depict different faith and biblical stories. A few saints also are featured on the windows. The open house is free to the public.

One other little-known fact about the church is that it also houses relics of several saints, including those of St. Benedict, St. Claire of Assisi, St. Vincent de Paul, Pope St. Pius X, St. Theresa of the Child Jesus, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha.

Light refreshments will be served during the open house.

Pam Leone, chairperson of the celebration committee, said: “We are very excited about this occasion and we have been preparing for it for months. The church has been here for a long time and has been the center of our communities through the years. We have always been proud to be part of the history of Shawnee.”

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St. Benedict Church sanctuary

History of the church

Even before Oklahoma became the 46th state in 1907, Benedictine monks were beginning to establish a presence throughout the region known then as the Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory.

The Benedictine monks first arrived in what is today the state of Oklahoma in October 1875. The monks were from the French monastery of Notre Dame de la Pierre-qui-Vire and they traveled to the Indian Territory at the suggestion of the Bishop of Little Rock, Arkansas.

They first arrived at Atoka, Oklahoma, in 1875 and began to minster to Native Americans and other people who were moving into the region. After a few months, the pioneer monks eventually settled on land donated by the Citizen Band Potawatomi Indians. They subsequently established Sacred Heart Abbey near Konawa in 1876. Additionally, they also established a school for the children in the area.

Sacred Heart, established in 1875.

From their base at the Sacred Heart Abbey, the Benedictine monks worked tirelessly to establish more than 40 Catholic parishes and missions throughout the Oklahoman and Indian Territories. Many of the present-day parishes in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa are still active. Arguably, it can be said that the Catholic Church in Oklahoma is built upon the foundation laid by these tenacious pioneer Benedictine monks through their perseverance, sacrifices and dedication.

Among the pioneer monks who arrived from France in 1875 was the charismatic Rev. Felix DeGrasse, who was instrumental in founding the St. Benedict parish in Shawnee.

When the area around Shawnee was officially opened to white settlers in 1893, the town was officially founded.

“It was natural for us (the Benedict monks) to organize a parish to serve the Catholic community that had settled in the newly established city of Shawnee,” commented the Rt. Rev. Lawrence Stasyszen, current abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey in Shawnee. “Fr. Felix DeGrasse accepted the assignment with his typical great zeal and success.”

Fr. DeGrasse became Shawnee’s first missionary priest, often celebrating Mass in the homes of early settlers due to lack of a permanent worshipping venue. Those settlers included the Timmonses, the Cassidys, the Dierkers, the Gleasons and the Philip Secks. Welch’s Feed Store, located on West Main Street, was later used regularly for Sunday Masses.

In 1895, Fr. DeGrasse purchased land on Park Street between Ninth and Tenth streets. Construction of the first permanent church and rectory began shortly under the title of St. Benedict Parish. Thus Fr. DeGrasse became the first resident pastor of St. Benedict Church.

The church complex was built in the style of an auditorium and was also used by the Sisters of Mercy as a parochial school. The school opened in October 1896, enrolling many Catholic as well as non-Catholic students.

During school hours, the school was separated from the sanctuary by a curtain. A large pot-bellied stove provided the heat and kerosene lamps furnished the light. Fr. DeGrasse named the church St. Benedict Catholic Church after the founder of the Benedictine Order.

This was the first time in 25 years that the Catholics who scattered throughout the area had a place they could call their home parish.

Fr. DeGrasse remained pastor of St. Benedict Church until 1898. During his pastorship, Fr. DeGrasse exercised such prudent financial management and accountability that he was able to tell his parishioners in his farewell homily that he was leaving the parish debt free. Fr. DeGrasse later went on to become Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey in Shawnee.

In addition to Shawnee, Fr. DeGrasse also established parishes in Pawhuska, Guthrie, Ponca City, Perry, Mulhall, Langston and Chandler.

In March 1903, Fr. Blaise Haritchabalet, O.S.B., was appointed pastor.

The city of Shawnee continued to grow after the turn of the century and the St. Benedict parish grew with it. It wasn’t long before the congregation realized it had outgrown the church building and there was much talk of a bigger church and even a new location.

There was a story told that on one Sunday when Fr. Maurus Fuerstenberg, then assistant pastor, was asking the congregation what should be done about the burgeoning congregation, a long freight train came puffing and whistling nearby. Fr. Fuerstenberg had to pause until the train passed by. That incident pretty much helped the parishioners decide to move to a different location and build a bigger house of worship.

Subsequently, Fr. Haritchabalet arranged for the purchase of the current location (the lot on Kickapoo and Benedict streets). In 1904, a two-story brick rectory was erected on the new site. Attached to the rectory was a substantial stone garage, which served for some years as an art studio for Fr. Gregory Gerrer, O.S.B., who had returned from art studies in Europe in 1904. His paintings and art collection later started the Mabee-Gerrer Museum located on the campus of St. Gregory’s University.

The old church building on Park Street was then moved to the new location and used as both church and school.

In 1906, construction of the present St. Benedict Church began and on July 29, 1906, the cornerstone of the new church was laid. The new St. Benedict Church was dedicated on May 12, 1907.

Fr. Haritchabalet remained pastor until 1915, when St. Gregory’s College opened and he was appointed the college’s first president.

Fr. Robert Maloney, O.S.B., succeeded Fr. Haritchabalet as pastor. In 1919, the St. Benedict School building was constructed. In 1958 a new school building was built as an addition to the old school. The gymnasium was completed a year later. The new school building began as St. Benedict High School, which consisted of ninth through 12th grades while the old building was used for grades one through eight.

The St. Benedict School was operated by the Sisters of Mercy from 1896 to 1974.

The high school was eventually forced to close in 1964 due to dwindling enrollment, and the grade school was relocated to its building.

The Sister of Mercy continued to operate the St. Benedict School until 1974 when they withdrew from Shawnee.

From the founding of the parish by Fr. DeGrasse in 1895 until 2008, St. Benedict Church was pastored by Benedictine monks from Sacred Heart (and later St. Gregory’s) Abbey. The only exception was Fr. Zenon Steber, who was pastor from 1901-1902.

In 2008, after having provided pastoral care to St. Benedict Church for 113 years, St. Gregory’s Abbey resolved to abdicate administrative and staffing responsibilities of the parish to the jurisdiction of the archdiocese of Oklahoma City.

“Over the course of more than a century of service in the parish, the monks of Sacred Heart/St. Gregory’s Abbey have received many blessings through their ministry at St. Benedict parish,” commented Abbot Stasyszen. “We are grateful for the support, encouragement and collaboration of the parishioners over the years.”

Abbot Stasyszen noted that two of the monks claim St. Benedict’s as their home parish – the late Rev. Michael Roethler, O.S.B., who was president of St. Gregory’s College and who also served as pastor from 1991-1995, and Stasyszen himself, who was born and raised in Tecumseh and was associate pastor of the parish at one time.

The current pastor of St. Benedict Church is Fr. Joseph Schwarz, who has held that office since 2013. He is assisted by associate pastor Fr. Lawrence Damian. A team of three deacons also help with pastoral ministries and services. They are David Schrupp, William Thurman and Roy Callison.

Currently, about 600 families in the northern two-thirds of northern Pottawatomie County call St. Benedict Church their home parish.