St. Joseph’s Church in DeWitt, Iowa, is one of the oldest buildings in town. Its steeple dominates the city skyline, rising high into the air to compete with the stark white water tower and the cold concrete of the Guardian Glass Plant. And yet, the large, well-maintained brick structure humbly blends into the town, making its presence known without being overwhelming.
Directly through the main doors of the church is the narthex, or entryway. This area is actually rather plain at St. Joseph’s. There are two tables where bulletins are laid out, and also the offerings for Mass are kept before the services. Along one wall is a rack of pamphlets, offering guidance and assistance for all manner of things, both spiritual and mundane.
But above them all, out of the gaze of most casual observers, is a stone set high up into the wall above a side door on the north side of the narthex. Most people who come in to Mass probably never notice it, and if they do, they probably don’t pay it much attention. After all, it does seem to be an unlikely place for what is an unusual memorial. However, it’s plea and admonition to the reader ties them to the very beginnings of St. Joseph’s history.
Written in Stone
The stone reads, “Sacred to the Memory of Rev. P.J. Maher – Pastor St. Joshph’s (sic) Church 1880-1903 – Pray For His Soul.” Of course, this automatically begs a glaring question – who is P.J. Maher? To answer that, we need to travel far across the Atlantic Ocean, all the way back to Ireland.
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.
Early Days in Anamosa
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.
In the same year, another new Catholic Church was also being completed several miles to the east – St. Joseph’s in DeWitt.
A Lifetime in DeWitt
In 1879, St. Simon’s, which was the first permanent Catholic church established there, had burnt down in a spectacular fire. It was quickly agreed upon to build a new church along the main north/south road in DeWitt.
In 1880, the newly constructed building was christened St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, and its doors were flung wide to receive an eager congregation. A year after that, Father Maher was transferred to DeWitt, to serve as pastor of the brand new St. Joseph’s Church.
He would serve in DeWitt for about twenty-three years. He performed all of his same priestly duties, but was also involved with the parochial school associated with the church, as well as helping establish a convent within the city.
The End of an Era
In 1903, Maher began to become ill, most likely with tuberculosis. He knew that it was time to step down and give the responsibility of his flock over to someone else. After a lifetime of serving others, it was now time to look after himself.
He left for Chicago to receive treatment at – appropriately enough – St. Joseph’s Hospital, a Catholic-run hospital there in 1904. Sadly though, Maher was beyond treatment. On October 3rd, he passed away at the age of fifty seven. His remains were carefully placed in a casket, and then put on a train for one last trip to DeWitt.
His nephew, Rev. J.K. Fielding, who was also a priest, and two other priests from Clinton County, accompanied Father Maher on the journey.
The funeral was held at St. Joseph’s Church, Maher’s home for over twenty years. Over his decades of service, he had become known throughout the region, and nearly sixty priests attended his Funeral Mass. The church itself was packed with parishioner who wished to pay their final respects to a man who had made such an impact on their lives.
After the Mass was over, the funeral procession left the church and escorted the earthly remains of P.J. Maher to their final resting place at – you might have known – St. Joseph’s Cemetery.
All kidding aside, Father Maher was a humble man who had an impact on the lives of many. He dedicated his life to serving others, selflessly and whole heartedly.
Father Maher is a shining example of those men and women, who, regardless of what their spiritual beliefs might be, work to brighten the lives of those around them and leave this world a little bit better than they found it.
So, if you’re ever in the narthex at St. Joseph’s Church in DeWitt, Iowa, take a moment to look up and read a small stone set into the wall. Think about Father P.J. Maher and how he lived his life. Reflect on those that you have known, loved, and admired, and the good works that they performed on this earth.
In that moment, and during this Thanksgiving holiday week, remember P.J. Maher and all of those like him, and be thankful that there are men and women in this world who make it just a little brighter place for all of us to live in.
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: www.dbqarch.org