The stagecoach which brought Father Matthias Hannon over 30 miles of rough roads in 1853 tried his patience but not his zeal when he came from Iowa City to Cedar Rapids to say the first Mass in Linn County. A small, unpretentious hotel known as the Dubuque House was the scene of this Mass.
During the next three years Father Mathias Michels was to make this journey many times. By 1858, Father William Emmonds, also coming from Iowa City, organized a parish. A modest frame church, 24 x 50 feet, was the first erected by the faithful. It was located at Third Avenue and Seventh Street. Cedar Rapids continued to be a mission from Iowa City under Father Gillespie.
In his monumental history of the Archdiocese, Monsignor Matthias Hoffman recalls that the Catholic almanac of 1864 mentions Father Herman Uhlenbrook as pastor both of Cedar Rapids and Clinton. From 1865 to 1867, Father Bernard Cannon ministered to the Cedar Rapids community. The venerable and much loved Monsignor P. V. McLoughlin took this mission for six months.
A convert to the Church, Father Clement Lowery, was the first permanent pastor of Immaculate Conception Church. A parishioner described this Swiss-born priest as “slow-moving, powerful, energetic.” He also had a parish school to which he devoted much of his time. In 1874, this was taken over by the Sisters of Mercy who were in charge of Immaculate Conception School until its closing. Father Lowery also cared for Catholics of Fairfax and Marion.
Father Thomas Gunn enlarged the Church, built a rectory, and encouraged the Sisters of Mercy in the project of starting a hospital. In 1886, St. Patrick’s was organized in the west side of Cedar Rapids.
Priests came, however, in quest of souls, not because of richness of soil. Father Gunn was smaller of stature than his predecessors. His twenty-six years in Cedar Rapids made him the best known citizen of his time. His friends included men of all faiths. The records of the parish indicate the care with which Father Gunn served his people.
Father Toomey, a native of Ireland, in 1906 came to Immaculate Conception Parish from the Cathedral in Dubuque. A graduate of All Hallows, which supplied so many missionaries to Iowa in the nineteenth century, he combined learning with energy. With great joy he saw his parish expand until he knew that other and larger accommodations must be insured. He bought property at Tenth street and Third Avenue, put on a whirlwind campaign that netted $125,000 and built the solid, substantial brick structure which now cares for over 4,000 people. Next he built the large parish school, now containing sixteen rooms, an auditorium and a gymnasium. His work was recognized by Pope Pius XI in 1932 when he was made a Domestic Prelate. Two years later he died, leaving as his monument a well organized thriving parish and school.
Father John Molloy, also a native of Ireland, was a legend in the Archdiocese of Dubuque by the time he became pastor of Immaculate Conception in 1934. Strong and athletic, he had unlimited energy and unusual eloquence. He, too, received prelatial honors in 1935. Over three hundred priests and prelates attended his solemn investiture. He was concerned about a home for the Sisters of Mercy and the present modern and well- equipped convent stands as a testimonial to his solicitude. He was vigorous up to the end, dying on a golf course at the age of seventy-eight and leaving not only a parish but a city full of mourners because of his passing. On the occasion of his fiftieth anniversary, Monsignor Molloy was made an Apostolic Prothonotary by Pope Pius XII.
The first American born pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish was Monsignor William H. Schulte, Ph.D., who succeeded Monsignor Molloy in 1951. A classicist of the old school and a national figure because of his interest in the Lay Retreat movement, Monsignor Schulte found in his new charge a challenge to a man of his great abilities.
He completed the work on the Sisters’ convent begun by Monsignor Molloy, remodeled and redecorated the rectory, installed a new baptistery and enlarged the present Lourdes chapel. To insure ownership of all the properties on Fourth Avenue, between Tenth and Eighth Street, he bought three houses, one of which now serves as the parish center.
Monsignor Schulte at the time of his sudden death in 1957 was devoting himself to the project of the new Regis High School which he saw as necessary for the youth of Cedar Rapids. He had the satisfaction of knowing that this work was well underway before his death during Easter week.
The sixth resident pastor, Monsignor Maurice S. Sheehy, Ph.D., was at sea on the USS CANBERRA during Easter week when he was invited to leave the Catholic University of America where he had served for thirty years, seventeen of which were Spent as Head of the Department of Religious Education. Monsignor Sheehy was a veteran Navy chaplain, the first priest selected by the Navy for the rank of rear admiral, with a record of thirty-three months service in the Pacific during World War II. He was permitted to finish the scholastic year and fulfill his requirements for retirement before he assumed the position as Pastor on August 8, 1957. Later he was to be made the first three star chaplain in the history of the armed services. He became Vice Admiral in the Naval Reserve on his retirement May 1, 1958.
On assuming his pastoral duties, Monsignor Sheehy plunged into school activities to which he had dedicated most of his life. He taught daily in Immaculate Conception High School and served as Head of the Department of Religion at Mt. Mercy College. His chief concern was increase of the practice of Frequent Communion. A mission given by Passionist Fathers in March, along with attendance at three High Masses daily, were high points of spiritual devotion. Meanwhile the number of converts seeking instruction increased from month to month so that much of the time of the three priests on duty was given to this work.
Mrs. J. A. Wicke, honored by the Holy Father for her work as a lay leader, was the first to inform Monsignor Sheehy of the centenary date. Plans were immediately begun for a Centennial Celebration extending over three days, from August 15 through 17, 1958. In this project, the pastor was assured the support of the very active Sanctuary Society.