Anoka County history: Humble beginning at St. Stephen’s

Families arrive and alight from their wagons all in their finest.

They are gathering at a small house owned by Peter Donnelly where they are welcomed as parishioners.

As many chairs as could be offered are quickly filled.

The men folk remove their head gear and all bow their heads to pray as Father Francis Hurth begins the invitation to celebrate the Mass.

I imagine this is how the parishioners for St. Stephen’s began their first church service.

They are thankful for the opportunity to pray together this August day in 1856.

From this humble beginning of 54 worshippers to now one of the largest congregations in the Twin Cities at approximately 14,000 members, the rich history of St. Stephen’s is remarkable.

The first Catholic sacrament was celebrated in 1861 as Father Jon McDermott presided over the wedding of Patrick Kent and Mary Sullivan October 1864.

This was followed by other first sacraments:  in 1868, 17 children were confirmed.

In August 1882, at their first Holy Communion, 10 little angels were dressed in their white dresses, gloves and veils.

The physical church has undergone several transformations.

In 1866 the First Congregational Church was purchased to accommodate the parish’s growth; St. Stephen’s parish was the largest religious assembly in Anoka during this time.

This building was dedicated in December 1866 and served as the Catholic church until 1889.

Another growth in population during a depressed economy didn’t discourage the congregation from raising funds for building a new church.

From 1887 to 1889, the congregation donated material and raised funds through festivals, and the new church building was completed for $18,000.  Archbishop Ireland dedicated the church in July 1889.

During the late 1800s into the turn of the century, the city of Anoka grew in many ways.

Two books at the Anoka County Historical Society, “Life in Anoka -1900” and “Anoka in 1889” are wonderful references to the changes in the city and society.

Robert Whitney III, to earn the honor of an Eagle Scout needed to do a project that benefited the community and showed leadership.

The history of the Church of St. Stephen’s was his project. This wonderful reference can be found on the website for St. Stephen’s as well as a timeline of the church’s history.

From 1950 to 1970 the church membership grew from 1,000 members to 1,600 requiring larger facility.

During the construction of the current church building, the cornerstone was uncovered to reveal “treasures” according to an article in the Anoka Union in December 1969.

“In a cigar box were 96 cents in coins from 1800’s, a statement in Latin about the Archbishop John Ireland and newspapers of the area, including one article referring to the construction of the new church.”

From fires to grasshoppers, lightning strikes to tornadoes and droughts.

St. Stephen’s, after more than 150 years, is still a pillar of the Anoka community.

Many parishioners have come and gone, yet the members of the church still show strong dedication, serving the community as Mr. Donnelly did at his small home near the confluence of the Rum and Mississippi Rivers in 1856.

Editor’s note: Leslie Plummer is a volunteer for the Anoka County Historical Society.


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