It was the 1860s. The American Civil War was raging in the south and east. Up north, Chicago, barely 30 years old, had a population of fewer than 200,000. The area we now call Mokena had only not long ago been claimed from the ancient wilderness.
In this environment, nine German families, drawn together by their love of God and the desire to worship Him, resolved to build a faith community that would become a prominent local fixture and a pivotal player in Mokena’s history.
The Beginning of St. Mary
The land for St. Mary parish was donated in 1860 by Matthias and Margaret Enders, and, over the course of four years, the local German families raised $1,400 to erect a church. Accounting for inflation, this is about $22,000 in 2018.
Parishioners completed the building in 1864, which predated the incorporation of Mokena by 16 years and served as the primary place of worship until 1955. The parish was aptly named St. Mary German Roman Catholic Church.
St. Mary was originally served by diocesan, as well as Redemptorist and Benedictine clergy. The first pastor, Father Peter Fassbender, hailed from St. John Church in Joliet. He traveled to Mokena every other Sunday to celebrate Mass. At that time, the Mokena area was sparsely populated. In fact, St. Mary was the only Catholic church between Joliet and Chicago Heights (On a side note, Saint Mary also started a mission in neighboring Frankfort, which would later become St. Anthony Catholic Church). By 1878, St. Mary parish had grown to about 30 families, had a Sunday school and a new pastor, Father Francis Sixen.
Arrival of the Franciscans
Diocesan priests continued to serve the parish until 1914, when the Franciscan order moved in. It was under the Franciscans’ direction that St. Mary navigated threats and took advantage of opportunities for growth.
The Franciscans’ tenure began with an interior renovation of the church. They constructed a new altar and added statues to better foster an atmosphere of prayer and contemplation.
In the 1920s, a destructive storm swept through Mokena, causing extensive damage to the church roof. Fortunately, the priests and parishioners were able to repair the building for continued use.
A few years later, the leadership of the parish, under the direction of Fr. Theodore Wemhoff O.F.M., thought it necessary to erect a parish hall on the east side of Wolf road, where the current parking lot near St. Mary Cemetery sits. This hall hosted many dances and parish events, and eventually became the first St. Mary School, which opened in 1949. The school was started under Father Benedict Pfeifer O.F.M., and Sister M. Charlotte was the first principle.
By 1950, the parish had about 50 families and was poised to begin a major growth spurt under the leadership of Father Cecil Koop, one of the most influential figures in St. Mary history.