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St. Mary’s celebrates 150th anniversary

  • 9 min to read
Timothy Armbruster

Overlooking St. Mary’s 300 seat capacity sanctuary, Fr. Timothy Armbruster pauses before leaving for a week of conferences in Kansas City. “Sometimes I will come up to the balcony and think,” he said. “A professor told me once, ‘When it comes to doing things in the church to do them up big so that people can see what you are doing.’ This also applies to decorating before for the holidays. If I couldn’t see it from up here, then people were not going to be able to see the changes from down there.”

It was the summer of 2019 and the Big Reds of Centerville were taking on the Mighty Cubs of Chicago. A modern-day David vs Goliath.

What was at stake was who would pastor St. Mary’s into their next 150 years following the retirement of Fr. Bill Hubmann. Accepting God’s will, Fr. Timothy Armbruster favored Centerville’s Indian Chiefs over Chicago’s baby bears.



Fr. Timothy Armbruster peruses relics and historical treasures from years past in the Rectory’s glass hutch. The collection includes priceless gems and stories from St. Mary’s as well as a few other churches of the area.

“Although I love the ministry in Chicago, I just didn’t feel I was ready to move back to the big city,” Fr. Armbruster said. “I felt more of a calling to the ministry in Centerville versus Chicago.”

Arriving only days before Centerville’s parish were to begin their yearlong sesquicentennial celebration, Fr. Armbruster’s serendipitously advent could only be viewed as divinely orchestrated. Rarely does a man answer a call to commemorate such a history while advancing such a future.

In observance of St. Mary’s year long celebration, the following are several alternating snapshots of the congregation’s first 149 years of record. History entries are in chronological order succeeded by memories of St. Mary’s parishioners.


The beginnings of St. Mary’s Church can be traced back through the ecclesiastical lineage that begins with the jurisdiction of New Orleans. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase acquired the land that would one day become the state of Iowa.

In July 1837, Bishop Mathias Loras became the first bishop of Dubuque, whose diocese included the region west of the Mississippi. They founded the first catholic church on Iowa soil in 1833. From that one church grew the rest of the diocese and the churches we know today.

Bishop John Hennessy became the third Bishop of Dubuque and was responsible for inviting Fr. James J. Kennedy, of Trenton, Missouri, to consider caring for the spiritual needs of the Catholics of Appanoose County.

In the fall of 1870, Fr. Kennedy agreed and decided the central locality for his missionary labors in Appanoose County would be Centerville. A few years later, on May 8, 1881, the Diocese of Davenport was erected and Centerville became part of the Davenport Diocese.

The Christmas Madonna

Dubbed ‘The Christmas Madonna’ because Mary is holding the baby Jesus and was displayed in Rathbun’s St. Anthony’s Church during the Christmas season. St. Mary’s inherited the statue from St. Anthony’s in 2017. Fr. Bill Humann had the statue repainted and it now occupies a space in front of a rectory’s window.


On Sept. 8, 1878, Fr. King would build a Catholic Church on the grounds of St. Mary’s but it would be another 34 years before the church would observe the name of St. Mary’s.

The frame building included two small rooms that Fr. King used as living quarters. A Precious Blood Priest would not be assigned to the church for another 60 years.


Susanne Ballanger was married at the church. She recalled, “My husband, Ron and I were married in 1974 at St. Mary’s. Ron wasn’t a Catholic. So, it was very special going through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program with him, knowing of his wish to become a Catholic.

“We are very involved with the church. Ron is with the Knights of Columbus and I am with the Ladies of St. Mary’s and the Parish Council. I also am a Companion of the Precious Blood.

“We both enjoy helping with different activities and events at St. Mary’s. Ron and I both have made lifelong friends over the years.”


During the years, the congregation continued to grow. Up to this time no permanent rectory had been built so Father Nolan immediately began making plans for a modern home.

In 1898, under Father Nolan’s pastorate a rectory was built, and the church was remodeled.

Fr. Nolan’s pastorate ended with a comfortable rectory, separate from the newly renovated church. Both awaited the next pastor.


Rollie Reznicek spoke on the difference he found in Centerville’s Catholic church: “As I grew up in Omaha, I experienced a lot of different spiritual leadership from grade school, high School, and the Jesuits Priests at Creighton University.

“Those experiences were helpful, all the parishes taught us how to get to Heaven.

“But here in Centerville we found a big difference. Our parish led by the Parish Priests have told Lucy and I not only how to get to Heaven but the priests and fellow parishioners have walked the path with us.

“It has been over 50 years and we are still proud and pleased to call St. Mary’s our Parish Home.”


Fr. Kaufmann began 11 years of pastoral duties in January 1913. It was during this time that extensive improvements were accomplished in the parish. The church was remodeled, and an assembly hall was built in the basement. In this same 11-year stretch, the first school room space was built and on Sept. 1, 1916, St. Mary’s school was opened.

Four School Sisters of St. Francis from Milwaukee were the original teachers, graduating 43 students in the school’s first two years. E. J. O’Hare became the first priest ordained from the school.

After the 1924-25 school year, the Franciscan Sisters left because they feared persecution from the Ku Klux Klan, which was active in the Centerville area at the time.


Denise Greene Howe recalled the old school’s dress code: “I went to St. Mary’s School for my fourth, fifth, and sixth grades as I lived in another community in my earlier years. My fondest memories are of Sister Justine Heffron and her sense of humor. I feel that St. Mary’s School gave me a wonderful foundation for my faith in adult life.

“We said prayers three times daily and attended Mass weekly. The girls had to wear dresses, and the boys had to wear dress slacks. No jeans were allowed!

“I feel very fortunate that our son Justin had the opportunity to attend St. Mary’s School and to be taught by Sister Justine.”


The priests from the Diocese of Davenport served St. Mary’s for many years. Then, in 1938, the Bishop of Davenport invited the Society of the Precious Blood to come to Iowa.

Since Aug. 7, 1938, the Precious Blood Fathers have had the spiritual care of the Catholics of Appanoose County when Fr. Isidore Stadtherr C. PP.S. was assigned St. Mary’s first Precious Blood Priest.

Eighty-two years later, Fr. Timothy is the 21st Precious Blood Father who now will lead St Mary’s parish into their 151st year beginning on Aug. 15, 2020.


Teresa LaPaglia Eggerman recalled: “I joined St. Mary’s in 1976. Many things have changed, and many things have remained the same. My son Matthew McConville was baptized, confirmed, and married, in our family church. My parents had their marriage blessed and my father PJ LaPaglia was buried in this church.

“I have experienced many changes in priests but all in all, this is still my church through and through.

Holy Oils

The Holy Oils, blessed and consecrated by the Bishop at the Chrism Mass, are used for administering the sacraments. Oil is a symbol of strength. The three oils are Oil of the Sick, Oil of the Catechumens, and the Holy Chrism Oil. The glass jar is filled with ashes used for Ash Wednesday. The palms from previous years are burned the ashes ground and used for Ash Wednesday.

“Probably some of my favorite memories center around my son’s elementary school days in St. Mary’s School, which is no longer present. Fr. Al Ebach was the priest for the beginning years and left such a great impression on our family. He molded the youth of the parish into what many of them are today.

“Our beautiful church has been remodeled but still stands on the original spot.

“Different priests definitely have their individual ways and quirks, but each leaves an impression when they are gone. Fr. Al Ebach was great with the kids, Fr. Joe Nassal was the great storyteller and writer, Fr. Joe Miller made sure everyone felt special, Fr. Bill Hubmann was a great singer and now Fr. Timothy is such a breath of fresh air with endless energy and a great cook!

“I could go on and on but in the end, each of them have their left their mark on St. Mary’s.”


Building one is the rectory where the priest(s) live (1956), building two is the school (1958), and building three is the house of worship (1967):

Under Fr. Eugene Omlor, ground was broken in May 1956 for what would be the first of the three present-day iconic brick buildings facing 18th Street. The first of the buildings would be the rectory at a cost of $71,430.

By Dec. 30, 1956, a home for the priests was completed.

Two years later, Fr. Urban Iffert oversaw the completion of the second brick building just south of the rectory. At a cost of $81,438, the new school opened for classes in May 1958.

The school was a modernly equipped, five-room structure of the same type of bricks used in the rectory. It was meant to hold grades 1-8. In 1966, due to the shortage of teachers and the large number of students, eighth grade was sent to public school in order to accommodate the first seven grades.

It would be nine years later when St. Mary’s third and final grand brick architecture building that served as their new place of worship would open, at a cost of $275,000.

For some time, St. Mary’s had felt an urgent need for some improvement in their place of worship. The old church, built in 1878, had been extended, renovated, redecorated and repaired time after time. It was now time to fulfill earlier plans for a new church for the Catholic population of Centerville.

On Feb. 4, 1967, the parishioners, led by Fr. Steninemann, left their 90-year-old wood frame church in a solemn procession transferring the Blessed Sacrament to the new brick church which Fr. Timothy celebrates the life of the church in today.


Fr. Steninemann on Feb. 11, 1967 would officiate the first wedding in St. Mary’s new church between Edward John Bubenyak and Violet Delores Sacco.

Edward Bubenyak’s son Jerry, 71, recalls the wedding 53 years later: “All the Bubenyaks that came to this country were strong Catholics. My aunts and uncles; Frank and Helen, MaryAnn and John were. My dad and his family never went to St. Mary’s but I would think dad was baptized when he was younger.

“The ironic thing is of all the Bubenyaks, dad was the one who hadn’t been to church. Yet Violet and him were the first couple married in the new church. I believe they asked for special permission to be married.

“Lois and I were going together at the time because I think I recall Lois attending with me. But, I remember entering the new church. I thought it was nice for my dad to remarry. He hadn’t even dated after mom had passed away in 1963.

“I remember dad and Vy walking into the church. There was quite a crowd for their wedding, dad had a lot of friends and so did Violet.”


Observing St. Mary’s first 100 years, on Nov. 1, 1970, Bishop O’Keefe of the Davenport Diocese con-celebrated the 10:30 a.m. mass with the other priests who were present.

To further commemorate the centennial, Fr. Dougherty who came to St. Mary’s in September 1970 and Fr. Miller the assistant pastor held an open house at the church, school, rectory, and the Sister’s house.


1915-1916: The original school that opened was attached to the church.

1924: School enrollment is 124 students

1958: New classes were in the new school.

1980: Addition was built on to the school.

1997: Sister Justine Denning was the only sister of Humility teaching at St. Mary’s.

2008: After 91 years, beginning with four School Sisters from Milwaukee and 43 local students St. Mary’s School closed for good.


Ann Belloma recalls her time at St. Mary’s School: “At the time I attended St. Mary’s School the grades were first through eighth. I went to kindergarten at McKinley School and then to St. Mary’s.

“The nuns taught every grade and Fr. Nels was the priest. I remember Fr. Nels pitching softball to us girls. At the time there were no playgrounds, only the parking lot on the side of the church.

“The school at the time was attached to the church. Where the school is now was a house where the sisters lived. We studied Baltimore Catechism every day. Fr. Nels came into our classroom every Friday making it fun because of his sense of humor.

“I remember when mass and even the songs were sung in Latin.”


Patty Timmens recalls mass being celebrated in Latin: “In the Catholic Church, mass was celebrated in Latin until sometime in the 1960s. For me, personally, mass in Latin was a ritual. Saying the prayers in Latin was soothing to me, probably because it was what I knew, what I was comfortable with. I felt that celebrating Mass in Latin was much more reverent. The change was a little traumatic.

“The tradition of Mass as I knew it had changed substantially. Around that same time, there were several other updates, and they all felt different to me. Altar rails were slowly removed, and people no longer knelt to receive communion. Women used to cover their heads in church, often with a lace mantilla. Altar boys were always males, now we have altar servers.

“Younger Catholics may not even be aware of these old practices. And please understand, I am not saying these modifications are bad. They did, however, affect me. These are changes in the Catholic Church that I have observed in my lifetime.

“In no way am I a Catholic scholar. These are just a few of my observations of our past.”

Fr. Timothy explains Parishioner Timmen’s observations in context to the Catholic Church’s history: “It was a time of great change in the Catholic Church. The way Mass was celebrated changed the view of the church in the modern world.

“The Catholic Church recognized the value and good of other religions in the ways of salvation. The ritual of the Mass changed. The priest no longer said Mass with his back to the people, the Mass was no longer in Latin but spoken in the vernacular, and it recognized the ‘full and active participation of all present’ that we each had a part to share in the celebration of the Eucharist.

“Some parishes did a better job than others in explaining and implementing the changes. For some, it was an easy transition and for others, unfortunately, it was very upsetting.”


“For nearly 150 years, St. Mary’s Church has served the spiritual needs of Catholics and others of good faith in Appanoose County in southern Iowa. Since 1938, the Missionaries of the Precious Blood have faithfully served the pastoral needs of the parish.” — The Parishioners of St. Mary’s.

St. Mary’s history has always moved forward on the parishioner’s faith for tomorrow. Local parishioner’s having the faith of things hoped for, but for the evidence of things not seen.


From the huddled immigrants of like-minded faith (who gathered nearly 150 years ago at the 1870s Flemming Hotel on Centerville’s levee) to the modern-day parishioners — Susanne Ballanger, Rollie Reznicek, Denise Greene Howe, Patty Timmens, and Ann Beloma Greene — St. Mary’s on Aug. 15 of this year will celebrate the faith of those who came before.

Teresa LaPaglia Eggerman, 63, has been a St. Mary’s parishioner since the age of 19. Her voice is the faith of 149 years of St. Mary’s and to the unseen future of another 149 years: “Here’s to a great 150th year anniversary St. Mary’s!”

Visit St. Mary’s Website at and their Facebook page at



Dann enjoyed a 16-year career with Casey’s General Stores. Centerville’s wayward son uncomfortable with success, returned home to own and operate the 88-year-old Blue Bird Family Restaurant for 23 years.

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