St. Mary's Church: History in Brief
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For the past hundred and twenty years, St. Mary’s parish in Champaign has ministered to the needs of Catholics in the area. St. Mary’s was the first parish of the county. Her priests were called upon to attend the people of Danville, Tolono, Bement, and Ivesdale, and other surrounding areas.
Near Urbana, Father Ryan founded a parish in 1854. This new “Urbana Mission” as it was called was concerned not only with the new Catholic arrivals in the city but went outside to minister to the needs of other cities. In 1856, The Metropolitan Catholic Almanac records that a lot was bought for a church to be built by Father Ryan. This is the same lot on which the church now stands. The next year, the Almanac records that the parish had a new church building. This original church was a small brick building and was only used a short time before a windstorm destroyed it. The destruction of the church left the Catholics of the community without a house of worship until 1858.
It was a very common practice for new Catholic communities to want a school for their children. In fact, canon law of the time prohibited Catholic children from attending non-Catholic schools. In 1876, Father Patrick Toner began the construction of a brick schoolhouse which opened in 1878. The rectory was converted into a home for the sisters. The school opened on September 2 with about 250 children. The new school received frequent visits from the teachers in the public
Father Flynn, along with many other Catholics, wanted to see a Catholic hospital in Champaign. Perhaps this was the overriding dream of his ten years here. In 1921, a popular subscription drive was launched to raise some of the needed funds. Various organizations and individuals, including Mrs. A. M. Burke, worked to raise $150,000 and Father Flynn’s dream became a reality. When the fifty bed, five story, fire-resistant Mercy Hospital opened at the present location on Park and Wright Streets, a group of Swiss Sisters, the Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross, had charge.
St. Mary’s Parish has been a people who have shared a common faith, who worshipped together as a community, and whose lives have been shaped by their struggles and joys in the service of the gospel. The efforts of this Christian community to be a faithful witness of the Lord today are rooted in a rich history. They have known some victories and some setbacks over the years in an effort to grow as the People of God through the ministry of priests and sisters. In a quiet sort of way they have built a structure that has been a center of social, educational, and religious growth for many hundreds. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the individuals in this community, St. Mary’s is a great lesson in how God’s grace can enlarge any effort.