There were Catholics among the earliest settlers in the Box Butte country, and Catholic Masses celebrated as early as May 1886, but it was not until 1894 the first Catholic parish with a resident pastor was established in the county. The territory of the parish included all of Box Butte County and extended east along the railroad, probably as far as Custer County.
The Church the Holy Rosary (its official name) has had only 16 pastors in its 117-year history. Fr. Thomas Haley served from 1894-97; Fr. James Aherne, 1897-99; Fr. Bernard Galvin, 1899-1905; Fr. Julius DeVos, 1905-06; Fr. William J. McNamara, 1906-12; Fr. Peter Donnelly, 1912-16; Msgr. Patrick J. Manning, 1916-54; Msgr. Francis J. Keller, 1954-61; Msgr. Andrew McDonald, 1961-65; Fr. Raymond Dooley, 1965-67; Fr. James J. Murphy, 1967-73; Fr. Gerald J. Harr, 1973-82; Fr. Francis T. Curran, 1982-86; Fr Edward Corthey, 1986-93; Fr. Bryan Ernest, 1983-2005; Fr. James Heithoff, 2005-2011. Fr. Lou Nollette will become Holy Rosary’s pastor on July 1, 2011.
About 50 priests also served as assistant or associate pastors, as well as teaching in the parish school. Fr. Dooley, Fr. Robert Rooney, Fr. Thomas Ryan and Fr. James Warner were superintendents at St. Agnes Academy.
The first church was a frame structure built at 423 Niobrara Avenue at a cost of $8,000. It had a tower and seating for 300 people. With its rectory and large vegetable garden, it occupied a quarter of a block. Fr. Haley celebrated the first Mass in the new church on Jan. 14, 1894. Bishop Richard Scannell, D.D., came from Omaha to dedicate the church on April 27, 1894, and officially appointed Fr. Haley as its pastor.
This church burned to the ground in February 1911. Fr. McNamara left at once for Omaha to consult with the bishop about rebuilding, and spearheaded the effort to replace it with the present building at Ninth Street and Cheyenne Avenue. The new church, built of “Denver pressed brick and trimmed with Bedford stone” cost $25,000. The dimensions were 45 by 90 feet, and the sanctuary seated 500 people. It was dedicated Nov. 11, 1911, and continues to serve the parish 100 years later.
Sadly, the first funeral from the new church was that of its young pastor. He was only 43 years old, and parishioners felt that his hard work contributed to his untimely death. He was not only a fundraiser and supervisor; he also got out and worked with the laborers when his duties permitted.
On the day of the funeral in January 1912 local businesses were closed and a long procession of horses and carriages followed the hearse to the railroad depot, where the priest’s body was placed on a train to be returned to his family home at Wisner, Neb., for burial.
During the brief six years Fr. McNamara was in Alliance he not only guided the church building project but also was instrumental in the building of a Catholic school in 1908 and a Catholic hospital in 1910.
Now the time had come for the state to be divided into two dioceses, with the western part of the state to be known as the Diocese of Kearney. Local Catholic laymen and business leaders arranged a testimonial dinner in an attempt to persuade the bishop it should be the Diocese of Alliance. The Alliance Herald published an article under the headline “Alliance to be Site of New Bishopric,” stating the fine new church, school and hospital made this the logical site for the bishop’s residence. The efforts of Fr. McNamara in making the community a “real center for Catholicity” were praised. The newspaper’s prophecy was not self-fulfilling; diocesan headquarters were at Kearney for a few years before being moved to Grand Island, the greatest population center.
Another pastor who became a part of local history was Fr. Patrick J. Manning, who arrived in Alliance in 1916, a very “green” immigrant who had been ordained in Ireland only a year earlier. He was to remain for 38 years as pastor, with only a few trips back to Ireland to visit his mother. He resigned after a massive stroke in 1954, died the following year, and is buried beneath a Celtic cross with Gaelic inscription at Calvary Cemetery. His brother, Fr. Daniel Manning, who had been the pastor at St. Bridget Church in Hemingford for nearly the same period of time, is buried beside him.
Fr. P.J. Manning was an avid hunter and fisherman, and it was known among his flock that his gruff exterior hid a soft heart. There are still some men in the parish who remember the fishing outings Fr. Manning organized for the altar boys. During the depression years families almost desperate for food, or coal to heat their home, might find an unexpected delivery from a local merchant, by order of the pastor.
He supervised the construction of a new brick rectory in 1926. The old house was sold and moved three blocks to 823 Niobrara, where it served as a funeral home for many years. It is now a private residence. He also oversaw the building of the Lyceum, which was described at the time as “the finest facility for high school sports to be found in the Panhandle.” The building still serves the parish in several capacities, but no longer as a gym.
In 1943 Fr. Manning was named a Domestic Prelate, with the title of Right Reverend Monsignor. He is one of those depicted as a “difference maker” in the local Knight Museum and Sandhills Center, with a mannequin dressed in vestments donated by his family.
Msgr. Keller came out of semi-retirement at the age of 74 to become the next pastor at Holy Rosary. He was a native of Louisville, Ky., who had been sent to Wyoming as a young man because it was felt the dry climate would be beneficial to his health. It worked! He came to the Grand Island diocese in 1917 and among his accomplishments was the building of St. Anselm’s, “Cathedral of the Sandhills,” in Anselmo. Upon assuming the reins in Alliance he vigorously embarked on a program of remodeling and refurbishing the church, rectory and Lyceum. The basement of the church was finished to serve as a place to meet, and bathrooms were added in the church for the first time.
At age 81, with eyesight failing, Msgr. Keller decided it was time to retire again and moved to an apartment in St. Joseph’s Hospital. He was the hospital chaplain until he became entirely blind but continued to visit patients daily until the end of his life. He died December 1973 at the age of 93 and was buried in Calvary Cemetery during a blizzard that kept most of the faithful from being present for the graveside rites. Many priests from across the diocese made the trip to Alliance, some coming in late due to the storm.
The next pastor, Fr. McDonald, supervised the transition of St. Agnes Academy from a private school owned by the Sisters of St. Francis to a parochial school. He appointed the first lay school board: Robert R. Moran, John J. Brittan, Dwight Sloan, Ronald Kelly, Tom Podhaisky and Dr. B.G. Bauman. This was believed to be the first lay school board in the country, perhaps in the world. The church purchased 20 acres northwest of the school and plans were drawn for a new junior-senior high school.
In December 1963 Fr. McDonald was appointed a Domestic Prelate and he was invested as a Monsignor in early 1964. His health failed throughout that year and he died in a Denver hospital on March 30, 1965. After a funeral Mass in Holy Rosary Church his body was taken to his native Greeley, Neb., for burial.
Succeeding years brought a decline in the population of the parish and the new school was never built. The land was sold and new homes were built there.
Tekakwitha Hall on South Potash Avenue was constructed during Fr. McDonald’s tenure. It was envisioned as a center for ministry to the Indian people, but it was never fully utilized. Occasional liturgies and gatherings were held there, the parish donated the use of the building as a Head Start Center for a number of years, and the property was sold to a private business in 1985.
The original wing of the school was deemed unsafe and Fr. Dooley supervised its demolition in 1966. The Sisters moved to the former nurses’ home at 1104 Toluca and their living quarters were remodeled into classrooms at a cost of about $12,000. Enrollment in the K-12 school stood at an all-time high of 428 in 1966-67.
During the time that Fr. Murphy was pastor, progress was made toward implementing the reforms of Vatican Council II. The altar was turned to face the congregation, Mass was celebrated in English, and the first parish advisory council was appointed. Currently new members are elected for the school board each June and new members for the parish council are chosen by lot. Strong lay leaders continue to assist the pastor in meeting community needs.
Changes needed to be made at the school in 1970 due to financial, staffing and space considerations. Meeting together, the pastor, parish council and school board first decided to close the high school and continue with elementary grades. After consultation with the bishop, the final decision closed the lower level and kept grades 7-12 open. In the fall of 1971 the younger children attended the Alliance Public Schools.
Pastoral ministers were introduced to the parish in 1970. Sister Agnes Taylor was the first, succeeded by Sr. Bernard Meyer. She was the one who initiated the very successful R.C.I.A. program in the parish. Sr. Carmelita Telles was later added to the staff. Though retired, she continues to volunteer in the parish office. Ellen Lierk currently serves the parish as pastoral minister and director of the R.C.I.A. program.
No history of the parish would be complete without mention of Amy Weare, who was faithful custodian of Holy Rosary’s finances for about 30 years. She was a “war bride” who had been trained in business in her native country of Germany, and she applied for a part-time job as secretary-bookkeeper at the church for the magnificent sum of $1.25 per hour. Amy never let her job description keep her from doing what she felt needed to be done. There was no resident housekeeper during most of those years and so she might do a little cleaning, some laundry, or prepare dinner for visiting priests and the bishop. Her relationship with the clergy was such that she felt free to give each priest a suitable nickname, and “The Bish” responded by dubbing Amy “The General.” She was also a willing partner in a card game, especially when a few coins were involved. When she was diagnosed with cancer in the 1990s she was not able to stay on the job long enough to train her replacement in what she felt was an adequate manner. Between chemo treatments, when she felt well enough, she reported to the office to answer any questions – or maybe to check up on the work. Three capable women have occupied that chair since she died, but there’ll never be another Amy.
Other current members of the parish staff include Edna Broad, St. Agnes Foundation secretary; Noreen Placek, Faith Formation director; Ralph Yeager, youth minister; and Jenny Oligmueller, parish secretary.
In 1977 a “railroad boom” brought many young families to the parish and Fr. Harr led a successful effort to reopen the elementary school. The old school building was completely renovated, with much volunteer labor, at a cost of about $25,000. St. Agnes Academy was again a complete K-12 school system.
A small house north of the rectory was purchased and moved from the site to make room for a parking lot. Fr. James Warner accepted the responsibility for this work in addition to his duties as school superintendent.
Also about this time Holy Rosary adopted a parish in Limbe, Haiti. That relationship continues to the present time. Some parishioners have visited Limbe, and its pastor visited in Alliance. A successful fund drive at Holy Rosary a few years ago put windows in the Haitian church to keep birds out and prevent weather damage.
In 1981 the church was completely remodeled and refurnished at a cost of about $150,000. Masses were celebrated in the Lyceum throughout the fall and the church was finished in time for the Christmas celebrations.
Under Fr. Curran’s leadership the parish and school continued to grow and administration of the parish plant was computerized. In 1985 Holy Rosary Parish joined many others in the diocese in the RENEW program, designed to revitalize the faith lives of its members. Small groups of parishioners met in homes for faith sharing.
Problems again arose in the late 1980s with the school. It was nearly impossible to find religious women to serve as teachers, the budget did not allow for hiring quality laypersons, and enrollment was not growing. With much regret the pastor, school board and parish council reached the decision that the high school must be closed. The first high school class of three young women graduated in 1911 and the last group of seniors, 14 boys and girls, in 1988.
The second wing of the school building, built in 1910 with no steel infrastructure, was becoming unstable. It was said that anyone going to the third floor on a windy day could feel the swaying and might become seasick. Demolition was scheduled; students grew accustomed to running two blocks down the alley to the Lyceum or church for P.E. and liturgical celebrations. The remaining wing was remodeled for its new use.
About the same time, an architect was retained for a one-story addition to the remaining building. It would include an elevator shaft connecting the two wings so the entire building would be accessible to the handicapped. Holy Rosary Parish Center was completed and dedicated in 1991. It contained offices and meeting rooms for the parish as well as a chapel/library, music rooms and a gym/cafeteria to replace space lost in the demolition project. And there was something brand new for the parish, rooms specially designed for a pre-school which opened in 1991. Fr. Cortney was the pastor when this project took place.
Holy Rosary celebrated its centennial in 1994 with games and visiting in St. Joseph’s Park (former site of St. Joseph’s Hospital), Mass concelebrated by Bishop McNamara and visiting priests, and dinner in the new parish center.
The Lyceum was remodeled in 1997 to better fit present needs. The Collection Basket, a venue for recycling by making gently used items available at very reasonable prices, occupies part of the building. The rest is used for meetings and dinners, and was used for Bingo until the school supporters discontinued that activity in 2010.
When its pastor retired in 2001, St. Bridget Church in Hemingford became a mission of Holy Rosary, with administrative responsibility for Sacred Heart Church at Mirage Flats.
In 2002 the dome on the church’s bell tower was covered in copper, and in 2004 the interior of the church was restored after a generous benefactor offered to donate an air conditioning unit for the building. The new decor used symbols and ornamentation faithful to its Romanesque architectural style and reminiscent of the original interior. The results exceeded expectations, the “new-old” church was rededicated and Fr. Ernest was able to enjoy celebrating Mass in the renewed surroundings for several months before it was time for him to move.
In 2008 it was time to celebrate 100 years of Catholic education in the parish. While the school had changed in form and governance throughout those years, students were present every term. Events were scheduled each month beginning the fall of 2007 and culminating with an alumni reunion, dinner and dance in July 2008. Honored guests included Jean Kennedy Davis, a member of the Class of 1928, and Florence Bamrick Johnson, Class of 1934.
Other aspects of parish life which have received special attention during Fr. Heithoff’s time here are formation of a stewardship committee and increased emphasis on the stewardship of the faithful, adding to Hispanic ministry components which include a monthly Mass celebrated in Spanish, and encouraging and strengthening the lay leaders of the parish.
Six sons of Holy Rosary have served the diocese as priests: the late Fr. Joseph Hargarten, Fr. Stephen Deaver, Fr. Raymond Kosmicki and Fr. Michael McDonald, as well as Patrick Powers and Edward Kunzman, now laicized. Fr. Daniel Wetzler, a 1955 graduate of St. Agnes, is a priest in the Diocese of Spokane.
Several local women have entered religious life, notably the late Sr. Catherine Hargarten and the late Sr. Coronata Manion. Those remaining are Sr. Kathleen Dillon, celebrating her 65th jubilee in 2011, and Sr. Patricia Podhaisky, who has celebrated 25 years in the order.
History of The Church of the Holy Rosary, Alliance
Updated in June 2011