ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI PARISH HISTORY
Hello. In 1904, the Vatican empowered the Bishop of Oklahoma, Theophile Meerschaert, to build a “fitting and commodious” residence on what was then known as the Walch Family farm. Complete with chapel and offices, it was the first residence built for a Catholic bishop. Catholics came by horseback and covered wagon to gather at the Bishop’s chapel for Sunday Masses. The building, dedicated in 1906, and has been declared a landmark by the City of Oklahoma City Historic Preservation Society. Bishop Meerschaert occupied the residence until his death in 1924. Bishop Kelley stayed in the residence until 1932.
In 1925 as urban development overtook farmland and the Catholic population grew, the new Bishop, Francis C. Kelley, saw the need to establish a parish on site. A larger “bishop’s chapel” was built on the west side of the Meerschaert House; this is the present day parish hall and cafeteria.
In 1927, one of Oklahoma’s missionaries from Belgium, Father John Van den Hende became pastor and established the parish school in a small white framed house at 15th & Youngs Blvd. The Sisters of Mercy provided the staff who commuted daily by trolley line from Mt. St. Mary’s. Records show that 45 students were enrolled in September 1928 and enrollment doubled by the end of the second year. Due to increased enrollment, the school moved to the main floor of the Meerschaert House in 1934. In 1938 the Sisters of Mercy were replaced by the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, Wisconsin. Father Van was so elated with their acceptance that he changed the name of the school to Rosary School, the same as the Dominican College where the nuns had received their education (Rosary College, River Forest, Illinois).
By 1935, the current pastor, Father Van der Grinten, had relinquished the Meerschaert House to the Dominican nuns to use as a convent and school (with 53 students). That same year a new rectory was built on the corner of 18th and Kentucky Ave. In 1941, he announced plans for a new school but wartime restrictions on building materials delayed the opening until 1944. As soon as the war ended the parish began building the present church, the Shrine of Saint Francis. Dedicated on May 22, 1947 by Bishop Eugene McGuinness, it was completed at a cost of $192,000. The steeple cross was set at 128 feet high. Pink Tennessee marble, white Italian marble statues, Bedford blocks and St. Meinrad sandstone lent solidarity to the structure topped by a red tile roof. The magnificent stained-glass windows depicted scenes in the life of Saint Francis.
In 1953, retired military chaplain Father Bart Murtaugh became pastor. He followed the faithful stewardship of Father Van and enlarged the rectory and continued modernizing the Meerschaert House, still serving as convent and school.
Monsignor Murtaugh was succeeded by Monsignor John Walde. He was Oklahoma’s famous “Radio Priest” and author of many pamphlets on the Catholic faith. He purchased the house at 1925 N.W. 19th Street for use as a convent which was later purchased by the Archdiocese as housing for the Ace Student Program.
Father George Wagner became pastor in 1970. He maintained a strong parish community, established the Board of Christian Education and Parish Council, and gave stability to the finances of the parish.
In 1977, Father John Petuskey assumed the office of pastor and oversaw a major renovation of the Kelley Room in 1983 to accommodate the growing parish activity. During his decade at St. Francis, Father Petuskey was Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese so Rosary School became a top priority. Kindergarten and Pre-school were added to the curriculum as well as a “sitting” service before and after school for working parents.
In 1985, Father Charles Schettler joined the parish as Pastor-in-residence until his death is December 2009. From a dairy farm in Sterling, Oklahoma, he became a highly educated and respected Chancellor and Judicial Vicar of the Tribunal for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma.
Around the same time as Father Schettler’s arrival, Sister Mary Joseph Meis of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ Convent began her 23 years of service as the Pastoral Associate for the parish. She tirelessly visited the sick and homebound while acting as Chaplain for the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Conference. Sister Joseph retired in 2006 and returned to Kansas where she passed away in 2013.
In 1987, a son of the parish, Father William Eichhoff, became pastor. A campaign to renovate and expand the school was completed in 1990. A subsequent campaign completed in 1995 added a Preschool (Eichhoff Annex) and a fully equipped gymnasium named after long-time parishioner, T. Phillip Kierl, Sr.
After being an assistant at the parish twenty-seven years earlier, Father Thomas Dowdell became pastor in 1997. He would be the pastor to lead the community through the healing process following the death of Father Eichhoff. He would also begin to refocus on community life and the parish’s spiritual mission.
In 2002, Father Richard Stansberry brought his energy to the parish by adding four new classrooms to the school as well as creating the Margaret Love Early Childhood Development Center at Rosary School. The parish offices were relocated from the second floor of the Meerschaert House to the first floor for better accessibility and the parish grounds were professionally manicured and landscaped.
In June of 2007, Father Charles Murphy continued to guide our school and church. Sympathetic to the church’s limitations for expanding because of being “land-locked”, he worked diligently with the parish council to acquire the “Braniff House”, which he refurbished to become an updated rectory, and two homes adjacent to the church proper in hopes of someday expanding the campus.
In July of 2013, Father William Novak, acting Vicar General of the Archdiocese, came to our parish. His active involvement in the parish and surrounding neighborhood has re-energized the school and church – uniting us more closely together as one faith community of Catholic Christians. Now ready to face the future with faith, hope and love for our Lord Jesus Christ and His Church, we are a parish of 1200 families and still growing, building upon the rich heritage of the past and committed to our charge by God for the future.