Our History

1909 – Ed Sweeney, Jerry Donovan, and Pat O’Rourke traveled to Peoria in an effort to convince Bishop Dunne to permit them to build a Catholic church in the village of Downs.

1909 – The new church was approved as a Mission Church of St. Patrick’s of Bloomington. While plans for the new church building were finalized, Mass was held in a large room over the Downs’ grocery store. Parishioners totaled 39 families.

November 1909 – Mary O’Rourke Toohill was the first person baptized in the new parish.

March 14, 1910 – The groundbreaking ceremony was held. This church was to be constructed of brick funded by financial pledges from potential parishioners. Most Mission Churches were made of wood. Donations ranged from $5 to $1,000.

Spring-Summer 1910 – Members of the new parish constructed their church using horses and wagons to haul gravel from the pit and brick from the boxcars near the railroad depot. The basement was dug using a team of horses pulling a slip shovel.

April 1910 – The cornerstone was laid. The first death in the parish occurred when Ed Sweeney’s wife passes away.

June 30, 1910 – Bishop Dunne, assisted by 15 priests, dedicated the new church in an impressive service. The dedication ceremony began with a procession through the town of people who arrived from Bloomington by train for the event. In his sermon, the Bishop recalled the words of Christ to St. Peter that upon this rock He would build His church.

During the dedication Mass, Bishop Dunne confirmed 23 parishioners. Afterward, dinner was served in the new church hall to approximately 400 people.

The total cost of the church and land was $13,000. Each family paid rent on their seat, the ones nearest the front costing the most. Each family sat in their own seats each week, marked with their nameplates at the end of their pew.

Hitch racks were placed on the north and west sides of the church to tie the teams of horses pulling the buggies, wagons, and carriages that brought parishioners to church. The roads were frozen in the winter, muddy in the spring, and dusty in the summer. Even when conditions were good, often families spent 3 to 4 hours on the round trip to get to and from the weekly service.

November 1931 – The Mission Church of St. Mary was transferred from St. Patrick’s of Bloomington to St. Patrick’s of Wapella.

1937 – Interior of the church was redecorated. It would be redecorated again in 1960.

1970-1971 – Interior extensively remodeled to incorporate changes in liturgy resulting from Vatican Council II.

1970 to 1979 – Priests from Holy Trinity of Bloomington provided pastoral care to the church of St. Mary.

1979 – The church was transferred to St. Patrick’s of Merna.

April 1981 – The church of St. Mary achieved independent parish status.

1981 – The house at 101 North Lincoln was purchased for rectory and CCD classrooms.

2002 – Addition to the church completed, adding a parish center and increasing the church’s seating capacity. The parish center was named after Edward W. O’Rourke, a Downs resident and parishioner of the church, who was appointed the Bishop of the Peoria Diocese in 1971.

2005 – Bishop Daniel R. Jenky celebrates the Sacrament of Confirmation at our parish. After the confirmation, he blessed the Bishop Edward W. O’Rourke Parish Center.

2010 – The parish community celebrates 100 years of St. Mary Church of Downs.

View the history of St. Patrick of Merna here.