Priests and Farmers – What Makes A Father?

With Father’s Day rapidly approaching, I’ve been thinking a little about what it means to be a father. Do you have to have children in order to be a father?

As I ponder that question, my mind turns to a particular individual – Father P.J. Maher.

Irish Priest in Rural Iowa

                P.J. Maher was born in Ireland in the late 1840’s. He attended seminary school at St. John’s College in Waterford, Ireland, near where he was born. After his studies were finished, he immigrated to the United States and was ordained into the priesthood in 1870, in Dubuque, Iowa. That same year, he was sent to his first pastoral position in Anamosa, Iowa.

For those of you who may not know, the parish priest is a busy guy. First off, he celebrates the Catholic Mass every day. In addition to this, he presides over weddings, funerals, and baptisms. He gives counseling, hears confessions, visits the sick, and gives general and specific spiritual advice to his parishioners. And these are just some of the duties and responsibilities that Patrick Maher would have had. And, in addition to Anamosa, he also served the needs of the town of Prarieburg nearby. Father Maher embraced his role and served with enthusiasm.

For a while, Father Maher rented places to live, but eventually built a permanent residence for the priest in Anamosa to live in. He also built a church close to Prarieburg. To accommodate his growing congregation, he was also responsible for the construction of a newer and bigger church in Anamosa itself. Work began in 1875, and was finished in 1880.

St. Patricks Anamosa

While things were going so exceptionally well in Jones County, the town of DeWitt in Clinton County was having a very rough go of things. In 1879, the first permanent Catholic church in DeWitt, St. Simon’s, burnt down. It was quickly determined to build a new church to replace the old one. Construction quickly began and in 1880, construction was complete and the brand new St. Joseph’s was christened and ready for its eager congregation. And in 1881, Rev. Patrick J. Maher became the first long-term pastor of the brand new structure.

St. Joseph's Church  Rectory DeWitt, IA

For the next twenty-three years, Father Maher would serve his new parish. He performed all of his same priestly duties, but was also involved with the parochial school associated with the church. In April of 1904, Father Maher left for Chicago to receive treatment at a catholic hospital there. On October 3rd, he passed away at the age of fifty seven. His remains were returned to DeWitt and he was buried at St. Joseph’s Cemetery a few days later, beloved by many.

Maher Funeral

As I write this, I’m reminded of a man that played a large role in the life of my Grandfather and his brothers.

The Old Farmer and Me

                Raised in Bettendorf, Iowa, my great-grandfather moved his family to an old farmstead in rural Scott County in the 1940’s. Like new kids anywhere, they had some trouble fitting in. My great-grandfather loved his children very much. However, he was quiet and reserved by nature, and spent a good amount of time working. Like many fathers, he had to spend time away from his family during work hours in order to provide their basic needs.

At some point after their arrival in the neighborhood, they made the acquaintance of Bill Schultz, an older farmer who lived about a mile down the road. He was unmarried and never had any children, so he took the boys under his wing and helped them along. Uncle Bill, as they came to refer to him, taught them things like woodcraft and horsemanship. My grandfather was of the opinion that Uncle Bill was one of the world’s great horsemen.

Father Figures

                In both of these, we have men who never had children stepping into the role of a father figure and helping others. They had a profound impact on some of the people around them. P.J. Maher never had any kids of his own, but was still a father figure to so many across eastern Iowa. He gave guidance, advice and counselling. Some of this was undoubtedly of a spiritual nature, but, like his modern counterparts, probably consisted of more earthly things, as well.

Maher also served as an example of how to live. Not only did he adhere to the tenets of his faith, but he strove to build new churches and buildings with which to better serve his fellow man. Instead of just talking about following a code of moral conduct and serving others, Maher let his actions do his talking for him.

Bill Schultz was just an old farmer who saw some neighborhood kids that needed a hand. It may have been that he was only ever a role model for my grandfather and his brothers, but even with just those few, it made a difference. The values and skills that Schultz taught those boys were used by them to, in turn, have an impact on others. Whether that impact was big or small makes no difference – it only matters that it was made.

There are men all over the world who are like Father Maher and Bill Schultz. Regardless of race, religion, or creed, men like these live their lives as an example for others to follow and act as father figures to young men and women who may not have a positive role model in their lives. Men like this may never have children of their own, but they gain so many spiritual children because of the way they live.

So as you honor your own fathers this holiday, give a few moments to thank and be grateful for men like P.J. Maher and Bill Schultz, who gave so much of themselves to help others. If men like these cannot be honored as fathers, than who can?


L.V. Dunn.  The Catholic Church in Clinton County. Reprinted by the Clinton County Historical Society,

                2011. Copyrighted by Louis V. Dunn, 1907.

The History of Clinton County, Iowa. Chicago: Western Historical Company, 1879.

Corbit, R.M., ed.  History of Jones County, Iowa: Past and Present, Vol. I. Chicago: S.J. Clarke

                Publishing, 1910.

Trigilio Jr., John, and Brighenti, Kenneth. Catholicism for Dummies. Hoboken: Wiley Publishing, 2003.

Davenport Democrat and Leader. Oct. 4, 1904, p. 2.

Davenport Democrat and Leader. Oct. 7, 1904, p.4.

Davenport Democrat and Leader. Oct. 14, 1904, p. 5.

Clinton Daily Herald. Oct. 5, 1904. 

Clinton Daily Herald. Oct. 7, 1904.  

Gravestone of Rev. P.J. Maher. St. Joseph’s Cemetery, DeWitt, IA. 

Archdiocese of Dubuque Official Website:






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