History of Saint Clare Parish


In 1909, a Catholic Church Committee approached Archbishop Moeller claiming to represent about 20 families asking for a new parish to be established. This historic event took place in College Hill. Archbishop Moeller proposed the name of St. Clare for the College Hill parish and appointed a scholarly young priest, Fr. John G. Stein, a former professor at St. Gregory Seminary, as its first pastor.

Fr. Stein celebrated the first Mass for St. Clare Parish Sunday, October 3, 1909 at 9:00 a.m. at Town Hall. The collection amounted to $19.13. About 125 persons attended the Mass.

Early in 1910, Fr. Stein asked Archbishop Moeller to relieve him of the responsibility of parish organization because of his failing health. The archbishop granted his request and named as his successor a seminary classmate of Fr. Stein's, Fr. Charles Diener, who remained our pastor for 46 years.

Fr. Diener enthusiastically endorsed the parishioners' preliminary plans for a temporary church. Meanwhile, a temporary altar was set up in Town Hall every Sunday and holy day.

A parcel of land adjacent to the present school building had been purchased in November 1909 for $2000 from Newbold L. Pierson, a College Hill real estate broker. Within a month of his arrival in January 1910, Fr. Diener was meeting regularly with the new church committee on details of the proposed church and on May 29, 1910 the white frame church capped by a modest steeple was dedicated by Monsignor John B. Murray, vicar general of the archdiocese.

Dedication of College Hill's first Catholic Church (the village was 70 years old) was an occasion of high celebration. More than 1,000 people took part in a parade prior to the ceremonies, despite heavy rain. Fr. Diener celebrated Mass; Fr. George Schmidt preached in English and Fr. John Bussman in German.

Before the temporary church was completed additional property had been acquired on Cedar Avenue. A house on the lot nearest Salvia served as a residence for the pastor who had been living in a rented house near Town Hall; a house on the other segment was to provide quarters for the Sisters of St. Francis of Oldenburg, who first came to St. Clare in 1911. With their help, 63 children of the parish were prepared to receive Holy Communion for the first time on April 23, 1911. On September 11, 1911 Archbishop Moeller administered the sacrament of Confirmation for the first time. 

Growth of the parish was steady. The establishment of a parish school and building of a permanent church were foremost in the minds of the pastor and trustees. By the end of the first year, Fr. Diener could count 110 families: 94 English speaking, 15 German, and 1 French. Five years later there were more than 200 families belonging to St. Clare with a total of more than 1,000 persons.

Building the School

St. Clare Parish School formally opened September 9, 1912 with a High Mass of the Holy Ghost in the temporary church. There was no school building but there were nearly 50 pupils ready to begin and several Oldenburg Franciscan sisters ready to greet them. Classes were conducted in the Sisters' residence and in the temporary church. 

With the school well launched and additional property acquired for eventual expansion, the three year old parish turned its attention to plans for a permanent building to serve as church and school. The result was a brick and stone structure, which still serves as the core of the parish school building. Mass was first celebrated in the "first floor church" from October 3, 1915 until August 5, 1930, when a new basement church was opened for religious services. School classrooms were on the second floor of the two-story building, which has been a College Hill landmark for over 80 years. 

Classes were begun a week late, September 14, in the fall of 1915. Enrollment was 116, but in the following year it was over 140. A four-classroom addition was built onto the south side of the building in 1961 at a cost of about $80,000 including furnishings. At that time 475 pupils were enrolled. Enrollment remained high in the 1960s, peaking at 536 in 1963, or about 12 times the 1912 total. However, by 1999 enrollment was 165 students.

On January 30, 1930, Father Diener called a "congregational meeting" at which records show, parishioners "appeared in large numbers" and a proposal to build a rectory and a new church "was approved unanimously."

Work on the two structures began within a month. The basement (upgraded to "undercroft" in later years) of the church was completed in August 1930, and the rectory in November. But the Great Depression arrived and retrenchment was deemed necessary and prudent. Plans for the main body of the church were set aside, the basement was roofed, the altar was brought over from the church-school building and the first Sunday Masses in the new basement church were celebrated August 10, 1930.

The parish population continued to expand and by 1943 the number of families in the parish peaked at 1,016. Fr. Diener never saw the completed new church. On September 17, 1949 he was hospitalized because of a fractured hip and he spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. He returned for the laying of the cornerstone of the new church on September 11, 1955. He died May 12, 1956 at the age of 83. Fr. George Gude, who had been stationed at St. Clare for eight years, was named pastor May 18, 1956.

To Fr. Gude, pastor from 1956 until his retirement in 1975, fell the tasks of completing the new church, which was dedicated on May 26, 1957, as well as overseeing the changes in worship style and other aspects of Catholic life proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council. 

Total cost of the church and furnishings was a little more than $500,000. Stained glass windows were installed in 1964 at a cost of $24,700. In 1982, a modern computerized electronic organ was installed at a cost of approximately $40,000 as a prelude to the parish's 75th anniversary.

In 1964, a house on Saranac adjacent to the parish parking area was purchased for $14,000. In the following year, a convent was erected on the site at a cost of $89,019.

Post Vatican II Years

St. Clare was one of the first parishes to establish a parish council in accordance with the Second Vatican Council. Commissions of the parish council operated in the fields of worship, social justice, education, finance, and various services: pastoral, social, and charitable. This tradition continues today. 

For more than two years, from June 1975 to October 1977, St. Clare Parish was administered by co-pastors Fr. Thomas Axe and Fr. Robert B. Buening. 

In 1977, Fr. Axe was named pastor of St. Raphael Church in Springfield and Fr. Buening was named pastor of St. Clare. Fr. Buening continued as pastor until the summer of 1983 when he was called to be the pastor of a larger parish (St. Jude, Bridgetown). Fr. Carl Birarelli, hospital chaplain stationed at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral, was appointed to succeed him at St. Clare. Fr. Birarelli, in his first role as pastor, quickly captured the affection of parishioners. However, he also quickly exhausted himself and was hospitalized twice. He asked to be relieved of his responsibility and, at the beginning of 1984, returned to the cathedral as an associate pastor. 

Two interim pastors have served St. Clare Parish since then: 1) Fr. Ed Grattsch, former St. Mary Seminary professor, from January to June; and 2) Fr. Terrance Schneider in July. 

There were 842 families on the parish rolls in 1984. Fr. John Civille served as pastor from August 1984 until June 1994. The 75th anniversary of the parish was celebrated in 1984. Sports teams blossomed at the adult and youth levels. Other social events were added such as the Evening for Excellence, the Golf Outing and the Fish Fry. St. Clare became an even more inviting place. 

Fr. Bob Hater came to reside in our rectory and become a part of our parish family in 1985. He added new dimensions to our spiritual lives through his homilies and his kind presence at our parish functions. 

In the late 80s, the sanctuary of the church was renovated. The communion rail was removed and the altar was elevated. A new organ was purchased and the choir moved from the choir loft to the left wing. As a sign of the times, Sr. Luke was the only Sister of St. Francis Oldenburg that was ministering to our parish. She moved to an apartment and Franciscan Friars, who have been an asset to our parish, rented the convent.

Sr. Luke ministered to the sick, the elderly, and has been an invaluable nurturer to all of us for 23 years. Ill health forced her to retire in 1999. 

Fr. Dale Peterka served as pastor from June of 1994 until May 1998. During this time, an elevator was added to make the church and church hall handicap accessible. Land was acquired on Saranac for future expansion. Three houses were razed and the land was cleared and graded. A steering committee was appointed to explore options for a new school or a parish center, which would include a gym. The church hall was renovated and new restrooms were added.

The New Millennium

Fr. George Jacquemin became pastor in June 1998. The parish has developed a five-year plan, which involves all aspects of parish life. The parish began to pursue the options of renovating the school and building a parish center. Lay involvement continued to be a critical factor in the joy and vision of our parish.

In 2005, the school was renovated by a generous gift of $250,000; air conditioning for the first floor of the rectory was installed; a new organ was donated and installed; it was decided in 2005 that St. Clare School would partner with St. Bartholomew Consolidated School and close our school building. The last month of operation was June 2006. A year later, July 2006 the new parish center was dedicated. The center is being used extensively for community and parish activities.

Special Thanks

Our thanks to Jim Shea, who documented and researched our parish so thoroughly for the 75th anniversary. The above history has been edited from his work and that of Bill Neus, who has so kindly researched, reviewed and summarized St. Clare’s history. If you have any comments, corrections, or additions to our history, please e-mail us with any thoughts you may have. Just click on the "Contact and Directions" heading on St. Clare’s website. We would love to hear from you!