The beginnings of St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church can be traced back to the earliest days of the community of Van Wert itself. Captain James Watson Riley and George Marsh staked out the city of Van Wert. The “original Plot of Van Wert” was made and filed on May 26, 1835.
The first Catholics to settle in Van Wert were members of the Gilliland family. The Gillilands were originally from a county in Northern Ireland and were staunch Presbyterians. The family immigrated to America and settled in Catholic Maryland near Hagerstown. A daughter, Nancy, became genuinely interested in Catholicism and became a Catholic. She later married Peter Wills, who was also Catholic.
In 1835 Gordon Gilliland and several other adventurous young men set out across the Alleghanies and Ohio looking for new land to settle. They stopped in Van Wert, where Riley and Marsh had just staked out a town. Mr. Gilliland returned to Maryland and brought all the Gillilands to Van Wert. Along with Nancy and her husband Peter Wills, there was one other Catholic, Catherine (Kitty) McCann, who had married on of the brothers, Thomas Gilliland. In 1836 they were the first Catholics to settle in Van Wert County.
There was an anti-Catholic sentiment among the early settlers of Van Wert. With no priest and no Catholic religious instructions, it would have been easy for Van Wert’s early Catholics to have abandoned their faith, but they remained strong in their beliefs.
In April, 1847, word came that there was a priest in Delphos. Soon afterwards, the Wills family sold their holdings in Protestant Van Wert and moved to Catholic Delphos.
About the time the Wills family left Van Wert, another family arrived. George Marsh, who had earlier helped to stake out the town, had now returned to live here permanently. Mr. Marsh had a son, George, who later became a wealthy and influential Van Wert businessman, and a daughter, Henrietta. In 1850 Henrietta married Robert Gilliland. Tragedy soon struck the couple when Robert died in the cholera epidemic of 1854.
Henrietta’s relationship with the Gilliland family continued, however; and after years of amateur apologetics by Nancy Wills, Henrietta requested instructions by Father Westerholt, the new pastor of St. John’s in Delphos. On September 29, 1859, Henrietta was baptized.
From that day on, Henrietta held what services there were in Van Wert in her home. In the Baptismal Register are recorded the names of half a dozen converts with Henrietta Gilliland inscribed as sponsor. She helped bring together old and new settlers—perhaps ten or twelve families—and a new parish became a real possibility.
Henrietta entered the convent of the Sisters of Charity in Cleveland and was professed on March 19, 1866. However, her stay in the convent was short-lived. Henrietta died of consumption on June 22, 1869.
Van Wert was tended to by Delphos as a station and then as a mission from 1867 to 1876. Father Westerholt paid his first visit in July of 1867.
Until 1869 Father Westerholt and his successor, Father A. I. Hoeffel, accepted the hospitality of a room in the home of Peter Roach. Mr. Roach would send a message to the Catholic community in and around the town. The faithful would flock into town, spend the night at the homes of friends, and be ready for Mass the next morning.
In July, 1869, Father Hoeffel purchased two lots facing South Chestnut Street. There was a small house on one of the lots, which was converted into a chapel.
Then in the summer of 1874, work was begun on a brick church, thirty by fifty-five feet. Volunteers from Van Wert and from St. John’s in Delphos hauled the donated stone for the foundation of the new church in one day with the help of fifty-two teams and wagons. The new St. Mary’s Church, costing $4,000, was dedicated in 1876 by Bishop Dwenger of Fort Wayne, Indiana, who acted on behalf of Bishop Gilmore of Cleveland, who was ill at the time.
It is interesting that in the 1850’s the Precious Blood Fathers had a circuit rider assigned to the mission at Convoy. This little congregation, much older than Van Wert’s congregation, at first increased but later was attended by so few people that in 1909 the small church was closed by the Bishop of Cleveland for lack of people.
St. Mary’s continued to be a mission church until December of 1876 when the Bishop of Cleveland appointed Father J. H. Leddy as the first resident pastor. This appointment gave St. Mary’s the official status of a Catholic parish.
In 1881 Father O’Neil built the spire of the church. In 1889 Father Clear bought a bell, which hung in the first church, was later moved to the second church on Central and Race Street, and then was moved to the parish’s present location in 1964. The bell bears the Latin inscription: DEUM LAUDO—PLEBEM VOCO (“I PRAISE GOD—I CALL THE PEOPLE”).
Of course, the old church needed some kind of stove for heat. The parishioners welcomed a number of priests, each of whom preferred a different kind of heating stove. After a few times, a change in heating system was anticipated—a new priest meant a new heating stove.
The parishioners of the first church also purchased the statues of Mary and Joseph in 1898. These statues were later moved to the second church and then to the present church. The statues were refurbished in the 1990’s.
On April 15, 1910, the new Diocese of Toledo was established of which St. Mary’s became a part. Father McNamara saw the need for a larger church and worked hard to see it completed on Race Street to the back of the first church. Gorgeous stained-glass windows portraying the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary were fabricated by the Zettler Company in Munich, Germany. A sixth window was created to balance the number of windows to the right and to the left of the church. The sixth window is a scene of the home and workshop of the Holy Family. One interesting feature of the sixth window is a hidden, artistic element incorporated by the artist. The Child Jesus is holding a carpenters’ square and various pieces of wood. If one looks closely, the form of a cross is held by the Child Jesus as a foreshadowing of the manner of His death. These windows, as well as several smaller windows throughout the church, were installed shortly before the dedication of the church on October 10, 1915, by Bishop Schrembs.
A friend of Father McNamara sent him a statue of the Virgin Mary to put on top of this new church. After the present complex was completed, the Catholic Hour Study Club built a Memorial Shrine for Our Lady facing Spencer Drive; and the statue was moved to this location.
The Sisters of Notre Dame began a catechetical mission at Van Wert sometime in the 1929-30 school year during the pastorate of Father Matt Smith. The Sisters were transported from Delphos every Saturday afternoon so they could give religious instructions to the children. These hard-working Sisters continued this mission until 1941, when a combination convent-catechetical school was opened in the old Clark residence on East Main Street by three resident Dominican Sisters from Adrian, Michigan. This was known as the St. Catherine’s Academy and Catechetical School. In September, 1942, the first Kindergarten in Van Wert County was established at St. Mary’s Church as a non-sectarian preschool center.
Between 1935 and 1953 during the pastorate of Father Gallagher, St. Mary’s Parish had grown from 250 members to over 800. The Catechetical School had 150 students in attendance. The parish was outgrowing its facilities. There were attempts to purchase the remaining properties in the entire square block bounded by Central Avenue and Race, East Main, and Chestnut Streets for a new St. Mary’s School. There were so many problems with this plan that the parish began looking for a new site—not just for a school, but for a new worship space as well.
In 1957 St. Mary’s Parish, under the leadership of Father Gillig (1957-67) purchased 22 acres on Jennings Road of what was then farm land. On September 14, 1959, the new St. Mary’s School costing $200,000, opened with 123 students in the first four grades and staffed by the Adrian Dominican Sisters. The house on the property was remodeled for the sisters’ convent.
Now that the school was in place, Father Gillig, in his own inimitable way, led the people to a new church. As in the case of the two previous buildings, the parishioners made great personal sacrifices and shared the financial burden of construction and equipping the new church at the cost of $275,000.
Although the church was not fully completed, the first Mass to be celebrated was Midnight Mass on December 25, 1964. The church and auditorium were dedicated by Bishop Rehring on May 23, 1965. The outdoor statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which faces Jennings Road, was donated by Mrs. Zita Fatum.
Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Vatican II Council Fathers (1962-65) called for the updating of life, discipline, and missionary authority of the church to meet the needs of the times of great change in society. There were many changes for the priests and faithful alike, but the people of St. Mary’s gradually adjusted.
Although Father Lovisa (1967-68) was with us for only a short time, he is remembered for his simple lifestyle and his tremendous theological knowledge, especially of the Church Fathers.
During the time of Father Hug (1968-71), plans were made for a new rectory to be built near the site of the new church and school on Jennings Road. This new rectory would not only provide living quarters for the parish clergy, but also for offices and meeting rooms. Father Hug moved into the new parish center on August 16, 1970. Father Hug is always remembered in his favorite spot in the new rectory—in front of the fireplace in the basement. Also during this time, a faceted glass window of multi-colored design depicting the Assumption of Mary, the namesake of the parish, was completed November 2, 1969.
It was during the time of Father Schreiner’s pastorate (1971-83) that various sports teams called “Royals” were started in the St. Mary’s School. Father Schreiner was well known for his love of sports. When big games were played, whether by the school children or nationally, he could be counted on to make an enthusiastic statement at the end of Mass.
On June 7, 1975, Norbert Reinhart, married and the father of three children, was ordained a Permanent Deacon for the Diocese of Toledo. He was the first Permanent Deacon for St. Mary’s.
The parish church received an anonymous “Christmas gift” with the donation of an Allen Electronic Digital Computer Organ by a parish family It was solemnly blessed and dedicated by Father Schreiner on Sunday, December 21, 1975.
The One Hundredth Anniversary of the founding of St. Mary’s Parish was celebrated from May 14-17, 1976. Special events and activities for all age groups in the parish were planned. It was a memorable time.
In 1980, the colored glass windows symbolically depicting the sacraments were placed along the sides of the church and plain colored glass windows were installed in various other areas. Until this time, draperies hung over the windows flanking the sides of the church.
The pastorate of Father Schreiner was relinquished to Father James A. Siefker, whose experience in teaching and administration at Lima Central Catholic High School, Lima, and St. Peter’s High School, Mansfield, has given him a great appreciation for Catholic education. His love for Catholic schools was evident in the fact that upon leaving Saints Peter and Paul in Sandusky, he requested of the Bishop that he be sent to a parish with a school.
In 1984, the burning of the parish debt and a celebration of twenty-five years of existence for the parish school occurred. It was the first time in years that the parish was out of debt. Thanks go to bingo and parish bazaars!
In 1986, the extension of St. Mary’s School with a new library, new offices, a sixth grade classroom, and an addition to the boiler room were accomplished through the generosity of Fannie Mayer, a parishioner originally from Germany, who left the parish approximately $130,000 in her will.
The parish seemed always to be plagued with roof problems. In 1976, the bell tower was removed from its original area atop the roof at the juncture of the church, school, and gym, and was reset near the drive connecting Jennings Road and Spencer Drive. This relieved the problem for some time. Yet in 1988, it was necessary that the church and gym roofs be redone. In 1990 the school roof was replaced with a rubber Carlyle membrane.
St. Mary’s was blessed with the presence of a second Permanent Deacon. Andy McMahon was ordained in the parish church on March 20, 1992. Andy is married and is the father of five.
For years the various liturgy committees were trying to comply with the wishes of Vatican II concerning the worship area in the church. Through the work and help of Robert Rambusch, a Catholic church designer, the plans of relocation, originally proposed by Father Siefker, were accepted by the Art and Architecture Committee and eventually by Bishop Hoffman.
In 1992 these changes were realized through the direction and workmanship of Deacon Norbert Reinhart along with other parishioners and private contractors. A remarkable feature of the project was the salvaging of the windows from the 1915 church. These windows were not needed by the new owners of the old building; however, removing the windows and replacing them with plain-glass windows was cost prohibitive for the parish. So the new owners painted the windows black and later boarded them over. Father Siefker recalled the windows from his days years ago as a visiting priest. Father did some checking to discover that the windows were still in the old church building. He worked to have the windows removed from the old building, restored, and placed in an attractive reredos in the current church, which also created a Blessed Sacrament Chapel for devotion. The altar, ambo, and chair were brought forward among the people to creative a feeling of closeness within the assembly in the new celebration area.
Two beautiful paintings were done in the back of the church by the late Ralph Margalski. The first is a painting of Mary as the Immaculate Conception, patroness of the United States. The second is a painting of Mary as Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas. Mr. Margalski was an inspired artist, who left a wonderful gift to St. Mary’s.
On June 8,1996, St. Mary’s rejoiced at the first ordination to the priesthood of one of its own, Father Keith Stripe.
Father Siefker retired; and on July 1, 1996, Father Joseph M. Schmelzer was appointed pastor of St. Mary’s. Soon after he was also appointed pastor of St. John’s in Payne, Ohio. The first Christmas Father Schmelzer served at St. Mary’s and St. John’s proved to be a challenge. Both parishes had more than one Christmas Eve Mass as well as Christmas Day Masses and the parishes are 30 minutes drive apart in good weather. St. Mary’s parishioners arranged for Father to have chauffeured transportation in style back and forth and back and forth throughout the evening. A boxed meal was also prepared for him to eat on the way. Later in the spring, Father was relieved of the parish in Payne.
In the spring of 1998, a very successful fund raising campaign to “Preserve Our Parish” was initiated by Father Schmelzer. The most visibly dramatic renovations took place in the school. While the roof was held up by supports, the walls were, literally, torn down and rebuilt. All the asbestos was removed; and the building was given a new heating system, new lights, new floors, new cupboards, and, perhaps the most welcomed addition—air conditioning.
Rev. Charles Obinwa, a member of the staff at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Delphos, served the sacramental needs of our Parish from 2003-2007 during the absense of Father Schmelzer. At the end of each Mass, he encouraged the congregation to announce birthdays, anniversaries, and other special family-oriented events to maintain our parish's sense of family and to lift our spirits.
In 2007, Father Michael Zacharias joined our Parish family as pastor.
In 2011, Father Stanley Szybka joined our Parish family as pastor.
From its earliest beginnings, St. Mary’s has been blessed with a number of societies, clubs, and organizations. It would be impossible, in this limited space, to give credit to the many dedicated people, who have served within these organizations and to the many worthy causes for which they have given of themselves and their talents.
May the words of the US bishops regarding the parish be a reminder for us looking to the future: The Parish is for most Catholics the single most important part of the Church. This is where for them the mission of Christ continues. This is where they publicly express their faith, joining with others to give proof of their communion with God and with one another.