IVESDALE — A rural Catholic church once known as the “cathedral of the cornfield” is celebrating turning the big 1-5-0 this weekend.
According to Deacon JAMES BREWER, who has lived in the Champaign County community of 258 for most of his life, the rural area now known as Ivesdale was first settled by immigrants, largely Roman Catholics from Ireland.
The town — which was named after a Rhode Island native, R.H. IVES, a major landowner in the early days — began to flourish following the arrival of the Wabash Railroad. Its employees were responsible for building a boarding house and a railroad depot.
Since the pioneers originally had no church in which to worship, a circuit-riding priest would offer masses in the home of a railroad worker named PATRICK GALLIVAN, Brewer said.
“The first services were held in the 1850s, shortly after the railroad came to town,” Brewer said.
By 1869, pioneers had begun farming the rich crops of the area, soldiers had returned home from the Civil War, and Ivesdale had become a popular stop on the Wabash Railroad.
It was also the year that the Irish Catholics — under the leadership of the Rev. PATRICK TONER, from Champaign — built a large, white frame church and called the new parish St. Joseph.
Four years later marked the arrival of St. Joseph’s first resident pastor, the Rev. PATRICK BERMINGHAM.
The community continued to grow, and soon it was time to build a larger church for a village affectionately known as “Little Ireland.”
The current church building at 201 Fifth Street was completed in 1894 just east of the original, during the pastorate of the Rev. CHARLES C. O’BRIEN. Its towering twin spires could be seen for miles away, even when the corn crops were tall.
The first mass celebrated in the new church was the wedding of JOHN DRISCOLL and MARGARET DONOVAN, who exchanged vows on May 23, 1894.
It wasn’t long before St. Joseph’s got its “cathedral of the cornfield” nickname.
“It became known as that for many years because it was the largest Catholic church in central Illinois south of Kankakee,” Brewer said.
In 1897, the old church was converted into a school, St. Joseph’s Academy, staffed by the Dominican Sisters from Springfield. Children from the surrounding farms would take advantage of its boarding school facilities.
In 1910, the Benedictines of Nauvoo took over the school, which later moved into the current parish hall. It closed in 1968.
“Today, we have 80 families,” Brewer said.
Since 2017, the parish has been under the spiritual leadership of the Rev. FREDI GOMEZ TORRES, who himself immigrated to the United States from Mexico.
“What makes this parish special?” the pastor asked. “The people, their faith and the presence of God in the community.”
The parish will celebrate its 150th birthday with a mass of thanksgiving at 3 p.m. Sunday, with a dinner to follow.
People will have a chance to purchase a commemorative pewter Christmas ornament and a memory photo book.