For over a century and a half, the Historic Church of St. Peter has watched over the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers in Mendota. Seen from miles away peering through the treeline atop the bluffs on the Minnesota River’s east bank, the church has been a consistent landmark for generations of people living in the area and is a simple yet elegant reminder of years past.
Built in 1853, the Historic Church, as it is now called, is not the original church of St. Peter. The first Roman Catholic priest to serve in Minnesota, Father Lucien Galtier, arrived in the spring of 1840, newly ordained at the age of 29 years old. The Bishop of the Diocese of DuBuque at the time, Mathias Loras, sent Galtier to attend to the 185 Catholics who lived in the Mendota area. At that time, both the Minnesota River and the small settlement on its east bank were referred to as “St. Peter’s”. A year after his arrival in 1841, Fr. Galtier was given a building to use as both a home and a church on the Mendota side of the Minnesota River by French fur trader, Jean Baptiste Faribault. This would become the first church of St. Peter. The roof of the room that housed the chapel, however, was constructed of bark and dirt, and in the summer of 1842 it collapsed due to the weight.
Construction of a new chapel commenced with many of the materials for the building having been donated by men that Fr. Galtier ministered to in the logging camps on the Chippewa River. The new log chapel, located on the grounds of the historic Sibley house in Mendota, was completed and blessed on October 2, 1842. The chapel’s alter is said to have been built by Fr. Galtier himself and remains today in the perpetual adoration chapel of the modern church of St. Peter.
In May of 1844, Fr. Galtier was transferred to Keokuk, Iowa. That same year Father Augustine Ravoux was appointed pastor of St. Peter’s in Mendota, as well as, the city of St. Paul and its outlaying settlements. Fr. Ravoux, coincidentally, was good friends with Fr. Galtier and the two were ordained in the same class in Dubuque, Iowa in January 1840.
Over time, the increasing needs of the parish outgrew the old log structure built by Fr. Galtier. In 1853, Fr. Ravoux oversaw the construction of the Historic Church. The building’s exterior walls were constructed of Minnesota limestone from a nearby quarry and the roof was made of hand-split pine shingles. The Gothic Revival styled ‘Historic Church of St. Peter’, when completed, measured 35 feet by 75 feet and cost a total of $4,426. Contributions to fund the construction of the church were made by some of Minnesota’s most historic figures such as Henry Hastings Sibley, Alexander Faribault and Bishop Joseph Cretin, as well as many Catholic officers and soldiers stationed at Fort Snelling.
While the church grounds and surrounding area of Mendota have changed significantly since 1853, the exterior of the church itself has remained very much as it was originally built. The only exception worth mentioning is the steeple. The original steeple was a rather short tower and did not actually contain a bell as it does today. That steeple was blown down during a storm in the 1880s and was replaced by a bell tower that looks much like the one that exists today. A cast bronze bell shipped from St. Louis was also added at that time. Unfortunately, that bell tower came crashing down during a tornado on July 20, 1951 and for the following two years the church awaited a new one to be built. During that time, the bell was hung from a nearby tree and continued to be used. In 1953, a shorter, silver-gilded steeple was built to coincide with the church’s Centennial Celebration.
A Time of Renewal
In the early 1970s, after years of weathering and deterioration, a parish committee recommended that the church be restored as it was in the 1890-1895 period. A year was spent researching church files, historical newspaper articles and records to gather information for the restoration work. On December 14, 1975, after the discovery of broken trusses in the roof, the church was closed for use. Services for the parish’s 650 families were moved to the remodeled St. Peter’s School which had closed a few years earlier. Actual restoration work on the church began in August of 1976. Outside restoration work included cleaning and tuck-pointing of the exterior limestone facade, installation of new window frames, rebuilding the roof, and removal & renovation of the stained glass windows. The most noticeable part of the exterior work was the construction of a taller steeple resembling the one built in the 1880s. This was the church’s fourth bell tower and it still remains today.
The inside of the church was essentially gutted. Fiberboard added in the 1940s to provide additional insulation was removed from the ceilings, exposing original wooden slats. Fiberboard removed from the walls revealed original stenciling from the 1850s, a feature which was also restored as part of the work. Broken roof trusses were replaced and a slanting theater floor was removed and replaced with a new fir floor, much like the original. A choir loft that had been added over the years was removed and the pews, which dated to the turn of the 19th century, were stripped and refinished and padding on the kneelers replaced.
Upon completion of the work in 1978, the beautifully restored Historic Church once again appeared as it did in the late 1800s, with the exception of the lovely stained glass windows which were donated by parishioners and installed in 1904. The total project cost amounted to $284,000 and was paid for mainly through donations and grants. On September 10, 1978, the beautifully restored Historic Church of St. Peter was re-dedicated by Archbishop John Roach before a gathering of 1,500 people.
After restoration work was completed in the 1970s, the committee that oversaw the restoration work became what is now called the Guardianship Board. This board still oversees the protection and preservation of the Historic Church for future generations. Over time, the congregation at St. Peter’s outgrew the Historic Church and a new modern church was built just adjacent to suit the needs of the parish. To this day however, Mass is still offered every weekday in the Historic Church, making it the oldest church in continuous use in the state of Minnesota.
If you visit….
The Church of St. Peter is located in Mendota, MN at 1405 Sibley Memorial Highway.
Tours of the Historic Church are offered on Sundays from 12:00-2:00 PM during the summer months beginning the first weekend after Memorial Day and ending Labor Day weekend.
- Bauer, Reverend John T. (October 1974), “A History of St. Peter’s Church, Mendota, MN” – Self-Published
- “The History of Saint Peter’s Catholic Church – 175th Anniversary” Booklet – 1840-2015 (January 2015)
- “A Tour of the Historic Church of St. Peter” – Provided by St. Peter’s Catholic Church – Mendota, MN
- Sorensen, Harley (1975, December 22). Oldest Church in Minnesota needs repair, shuts down. Minneapolis Star Tribune – Page 16
- Becker, Betsy (1978, September 19). Oldest church has “new look”. St. Paul Dispatch