St. John Nepomucene Catholic Parish in Dahlgren celebrates 125 years

In 1893, Leo XIII was pope, Grover Cleveland was president of The United States, The World’s Columbian Exposition was in full swing in Chicago, the song we now sing as “Happy Birthday to You” was published, and the panic of 1893 was causing hundreds of U.S. banks to fail.

What decidedly did not fail was the faith of a small Catholic community that had recently branched off from the already thriving St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Piopolis.

On Dec. 2, Hamilton County Catholics gathered to celebrate 125 years since the founding of St. John Nepomucene Catholic Parish in Dahlgren. A special Mass was celebrated by Father Slawomir Ptak, administrator of St. John Nepomucene.

“Descendants of the original Catholic settlers still live and worship in our community and many were in attendance,” said parishioner Rachel Hopfinger.

Organizer Barb Burk noted that everyone came together to make the 125th anniversary a momentous occasion.

“The day was a wonderful expression of our love for the Catholic faith in our world today,” she said.

Father Ptak said he has been impressed with the strong faith of the parishioners. “I come from a country (Poland) where Catholicism has been present for centuries,” he said. “The cathedral church where I was ordained was built in 1300. So compared to that, celebrating 125 years is a young age for a parish. However, the strong faith of the people and their dreams of having their own parish are just as strong whether it be 125 or 600 years old.”

Father Ptak said what made this celebration special for him was that St. John Nepomucene was a European saint. “When I was a child and would walk to school, I would pass a house that had the same statue of St. John Nepomucene in their yard that is present in our church,” he said. “A celebration like this brings out the best in people. They come together and work tirelessly to prepare the liturgy, decorations, music, worship, and a traditional southern Illinois feast. The social side of this celebration was wonderful, but what brought us together and unites us always is Jesus Christ and His Church — this was understood by people 125 years ago and is still in the hearts of their descendants today.”

Added Father Ptak: “If you are ever traveling through Hamilton County and attend Mass or one of our celebrations, you will be sure to experience the hospitality of the people who live here and you might have the opportunity to enjoy a great meal.”

An informal history of the parish notes that in the late 19th century, Catholic businessmen, farmers, and tradesmen had moved to the growing railroad town of Dahlgren to make better lives for themselves and their families. A place to worship their God in these new surroundings became a priority. The Rev. Johann Nepomuk Enzelberger directed the establishment of St. John Nepomucene Catholic Parish. It is assumed that the parish took its patron saint, John of Nepomuk of Bohemia, in honor of their priest’s namesake. A wooden church that could seat 150 parishioners was dedicated by the first bishop of the newly formed Diocese of Belleville, Bishop John Janssen, on Dec. 5, 1893.

The next 125 years saw the construction of two rectories (one burned in 1936), a Catholic school, a gathering hall, and the modern church that now occupies the original church location on Main Street.