“We hereby institute for the faithful of German origin or nationality living in Springfield and North Springfield and their suburbs in this diocese, a parish or mission to be in the charge of a priest of the order of St. Benedict.”
This simple, straightforward announcement from Bishop John Joseph Hogan of Kansas City in April 1892 marked the beginning of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Springfield. When you walk inside the church today, it’s easy to feel the generations of prayers that have been offered up in this beautiful testament to the Catholic faith located at 1115 N. Campbell Ave. It’s also easy to spot visitors to St. Joseph’s – they’re the ones holding up their phones as soon as Mass has ended to get photographic and video memories of the artistic splendor of the main altar, side altars, stained glass windows, painted ceiling, and statues inside the sanctuary.
St. Joseph has long been known for its interior beauty and its iconic steeple that watches over the north Springfield skyline. Lesser known, but equally interesting, is the story of St. Joseph’s beginning – a history that includes inspiring examples of a congregation’s heartfelt devotion to its church and also has links to people who played prominent parts in Springfield’s development in the latter part of the 19th century.
The first site of St. Joseph’s – the one Bishop Hogan’s 1892 announcement brought into existence – was not its current Campbell Ave. location. The original St. Joseph’s was on the corner of Jefferson Ave. and Chestnut St. and was made possible by a donation by Charles Heer – the founder of Springfield’s famed Heer’s Department Store. Born in Germany in 1820 and a resident of Springfield since the early 1870s, Heer never let his business successes detract from his strong Catholic faith. In the summer of 1892, Heer donated a house and a lot on the northwest corner of Jefferson and Chestnut to Conception Abbey. The donation, valued at $10,000, was to be used for a chapel and for the establishment of a boys’ school for German-speaking Catholics.
Another prominent Springfield businessman of the time, August Lohmeyer, did much of the work on the interior of the original St. Joseph chapel building. Today, the Lohmeyer name is linked to Springfield’s well-known Herman Lohmeyer Funeral Home. August Lohmeyer, a family predecessor of Herman who moved to Springfield in 1879, was one of the city’s early undertakers, but his entrepreneurial skills also led to several other ventures, including teaching German language classes and operating a travel agency for six different steamship lines. Like Heer, Lohmeyer’s financial success did not dim his strong Catholic faith. His labors on the newly built St. Joseph Church included work on the altar, communion rail, and pews.
Father Maurus Eckstein was appointed pastor and Father Basil Odermatt, O.S.B. was his assistant. On Feb. 5, 1893, Abbot Frowin Conrad, O.S.B. celebrated high Mass and blessed the chapel, which was to serve as a church for 30 German families. Father Thomas Lillis, the pastor of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Kansas City, delivered the sermon.
The stable behind the pastor’s rectory was remodeled into a grade school and was staffed by two Religious Sisters of Mercy (R.S.M.), Sister M. Alacoque Kelley and Sister Mary Stanislaus Tennelly. In addition to being teachers at the very first St. Joseph’s School, these two nuns (along with Sister M. Xavier Kinsella) helped found St. John’s Hospital, which later became Mercy Hospital and still serves the health needs of Springfield and Southwest Missouri today.
Several priests served at St. Joseph’s before Father Eckstein returned to pastor the church in 1897. By the time of Father Maurus’ return, it was evident the congregation had outgrown its location at the corner of Jefferson and Chestnut and a new church site was needed. On April 3, 1898, Charles Heer died and his will bequeathed the sum of $15,000 for the construction of a new church and a new school.
On June 30, 1904; three lots were purchased on the corner of Campbell and Scott streets with Heer’s money and with donations from parishioners. Work began on the church soon after. Brother Adrian Wewer O.F.M. (Order of Friars Minor) of St. Louis – the same architect who designed Conception Abbey in northwest Missouri – drew up the plans for the new St. Joseph’s Church.
Frank X. Baron became the contractor early in the construction process. The concrete was mixed and poured into forms on the grounds. Much of the work was done by Father Maurus, work that included pushing wheelbarrows of blocks up the scaffold and placing them in the wall. A number of other members of the congregation joined in the construction process, many of whom contributed their labors after working all day at their regular jobs.
On June 5, 1905, the cornerstone was laid by Bishop Thomas Lillis, the same person who, as a priest, had delivered the first sermon at the original St. Joseph’s Church a decade earlier. On Nov. 29, 1906, the new St. Joseph Church (the one currently in existence) was dedicated by Rev. Abbot Frowin Conrad, O.S.B. of Conception Abbey.
St. Joseph’s beautiful main altar and side altars are the results of the philanthropy of the John F. Meyer family. Today, the Meyer name may not be as recognizable to Springfieldians as Heer and Loymeyer, but at the beginning of the 20th century, the John F. Meyer & Sons Milling Company was one of the region’s largest milling businesses. At its peak, the large operation produced seven hundred barrels of flour per day.
St. Joseph’s main altar was paid for with a donation from Herman Meyer, one of John F.’s sons. The south side altar was a gift of Henry Meyer (a brother of Herman’s) and the north side altar was a gift of John F. Meyer, Jr. (another brother).
Another impressive sign of the commitment St. Joseph’s early congregation had to their beloved church can be found on the ceiling of the sanctuary. The pictures that beautify the ceiling were painted by Father Maurus and two other priests.
The beautiful bas-relief stations of the cross adorning the north and south walls of the church were made possible through a donation from Julia C. Harpstrite, who was Father Maurus’ housekeeper.
The original pipe organ that still resides in the choir loft was installed for a cost of $4,700 – $2,300 of which came via a donation from John Thies. This Thies was likely a descendant (perhaps a son) of John Thies, a successful Springfield tailor who was born in Germany and moved to Springfield in the 19th century. Like the above-mentioned Heer, Lohmeyer, and Meyer; Thies was a familiar name in the business circles of late-19th century and early 20th century Springfield. Thies was known for his German roots, his business success, his philanthropic nature, and his devotion to his Catholic faith. In the 1914 Fairbanks and Tuck publication “Past and Present of Greene County,” the elder John Thies is described as “one of the best citizens of the community.”
Today, St. Joseph’s rich history is still evident throughout the church. Note the German dedications on the stained-glass windows. Notice that the Heer, Lohmeyer, and Meyer families all are remembered in specific windows. Also notice the window on the south side which reads “Gesiffet von (translation – “donated by”) Konrad Fassnacht and Familie.” Konrad Fassnacht may not be a familiar name with modern Springfieldians. However, the land donated by this man – most records use the anglicized version of his name, Conrad Fassnight – became Fassnight Park and has been enjoyed by generations of Springfield families.
It should be noted that, though St. Joseph’s history is rich, this beautiful building is not some antiquated relic focused solely on Springfield’s Catholic past. It is a growing, progressive church that is a forward-looking member of the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocese. It has a rich past and a bright future that we hope you will become an active part of. We hope our church’s rich history of commitment by its early parishioners inspires you to want to be involved in making St. Joseph’s a vibrant member of southwest Missouri’s Catholic community for years to come.
Check out our photo gallery to see the many colorful and inspiring details at St Joseph Catholic Church.