SPN Parish History at a Glance:
1904 - St. Philip Neri Parish established on 31st and
Grebe Street in Florence, Nebraska
1905 - First Pastor - Fr. Michael Barrett assigned to
1918 - First rectory built at NW corner of 31st and
1922 - School built north of the rectory and church,
staffed by School Sisters of St. Francis from Clinton, Iowa
1937 - Church enlarged and updated. Dominican Sisters
of St. Catherine in Kentucky came to serve the Parish
1953 - Present church and rectory built
1959 - New school built on site of old rectory and
church on 31st and Grebe Street
1969 - Church air-conditioned
1998 - Parking lot built
1999 - Land donated west of school (31st and Mormon
Street) for an activity center
2000 - Building of the Activity Center begins
St. Phil's website developed
2001 - Activity Center Completed
Building of the Media Center
at St. Philip Neri School
Historical Background of Parish:
The Catholic influence in the Florence area dates
back to the early nineteenth century when the Catholic fur trader Manuel Lisa
headquartered along the Missouri River within the confines of the present day St. Philip
Neri Parish. Some years later a small bank of Belgian Jesuit missionaries, including the
famed Father DeSmet, came to Nebraska. Father DeSmet knew the area of our parish well; he
visited the trading post of his friend Jean Cabanne, which was located near the present
In 1850 the Holy See established the Vicariate
Apostolic of the Indian Territory - - in other words, a diocese including all the land
between Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains. The first bishop made his residence in
what would later be Kansas. In 1854 the Nebraska Territory was opened to white
settlement, and Irish-Born Catholics from Pennsylvania settled in the vicinity of Omaha.
On May 15, 1855, the first Mass in Omaha was said. In 1859 a Vicar Apostolic of the new
Vicariate of Nebraska was appointed. Catholicism now had official roots in the plains.
Meanwhile the Mormons, led by Brigham Young, had
spent from September 1846 until May 1848 in the Florence area. In fact, the present
Florence Park, which for years served as a playground for St. Philip Neri pupils, was the
Mormon cattle corral. It had always been our understanding that Brigham Young's home had
been in the block of 31st Street just north of our present St. Philip Neri School and
Playground. However, a missionary at the Mormon Cemetery has told us that research has
shown that Young lived on almost the exact spot of the fire station at 31st and Dick
Collins Road. Hundreds of Mormons who died in those dreadful winters lie buried in the
Mormon Cemetery at 33rd and State Streets.
Shortly after the Mormons left for Utah, the Florence
Bank was erected, and it still stands today at the northwest corner of 30th and Willit
Streets. One by one other business establishments came in to being -- some stores built of
wood, a few of brick. Main Street, which is now 30th Street, was a wide road, dusty and
dirty in summer and fall and miserably muddy in winter and spring. At the turn of the
century Florence was a typical small western town.
Some miles north of the present Mormon Bridge was a
dock called Rockport where boats docked and a tiny ferry carried passengers to the Iowa
side of the Missouri River and back. Of course, the ice-bound river could not be navigated
from November to March.
Until 1904 the Catholics of the Florence area were in
somewhat of a spiritual wilderness. The closest churches were the church in Blair, a
mission church out of Blair at Calhoun, and Sacred Heart Church at 22nd and Binney Streets
in Omaha. Many of the "old timers" of the area tell of driving by horse and
buggy or walking to Sacred Heart.
At times, Mass was said at William Pulte's home. His
brother, Anton Pulte, often told of driving his horse and buggy to Blair and bringing back
a priest to say Mass in the Pulte home. A few years later a train ran from Blair to
downtown Omaha where Catholics could attend Mass at St. Mary Magdalene's Church which was
formerly a day's trip for those in and around Florence.
A young man by the name of Dennis J. Scannell
O'Neill, who had been born in Bloomington, Illinois, and educated at Creighton University,
was friendly with Father Paul Francis, the popular minister of the Episcopal Church in
Florence. Father Paul Francis was so influenced by O'Neill that he left the Episcopal
Church and became a Catholic.
O'Neill approached his relative Richard Scannell,
then Bishop of Omaha, telling him of the faith of the Catholics in the Florence area and
of their willingness to go to any lengths to attend Mass. Obviously, a church was needed
in Florence, O'Neill told the Bishop and the Bishop agreed.
According to the article written by Father Burke for
the dedication of the new church in1954, and the 75th Anniversary booklet written in 1979
by Dr. Thomas A. Kuhlman, a Mr. Manning donated the ground on which the church was to be
built, but records show that in 1899 Bishop Scannell bought land for the church from
Victor Lantry for Twenty-Five Dollars. Four founding families mortgaged their properties
to make possible the building of the church on the west side of 31st Street, north of
Grebe Street: Dennis O'Neill, Joseph Cloudt, Jacob Long, and William Pulte. St. Philip
Neri Parish was founded in 1904 as a mission and named for St. Philip Neri, who was born
in Florence, Italy, in 1515.
The church was blessed on Rosary Sunday, October 2,
1904, by Bishop Scannell. Due to adverse times, the four families came close to losing
their properties, but Count Edward Creighton stepped in with a loan of $1,500 to save
For its first year, the parish was served by Rev.
J.C. Buckley of Sacred Heart, or by a priest who visited from Blair. In 1905, Father
Michael Barrett was transferred from Blair to be the first pastor of St. Philip Neri,
having previously come from Dunmore, Pennsylvania. He had studied at St. Bonaventure's
College in New York. Until 1918, when the first rectory was built, Father Barrett lived in
a room behind the alter of the Church, taking many of his meals at the W. R. Wall home on
the corner of what is now 31st and State Streets.
Money was so scarce that it was impossible to buy
even the necessities. Ruth Lonergan Kelly told of her mother taking a crock of
fresh-churned butter to Father. When she went to Mass the next day, her crock was being
used as a holy water font.
Father Barrett taught his altar boys Latin during the
summer months so that they could properly serve Mass. Father loved to play the violin. He
could often be seen on on Sunday afternoons fiddling in the band stand in the Florence
Park, and in a few minutes a large crowd would gather to hear him play.
In 1918, a year after Florence had been annexed to
the City of Omaha, Father Barrett found it possible, with the help of the men of the
parish, to build a rectory on the northwest corner of 31st and Grebe Streets just south of
the church. Shortly after that he died.
Following Father Barrett's death, Father Peter Ganon
and Father Edward J. Flanagan (later the founder of Boys' Town) assisted the Parish until
Father Timothy O'Driscoll, (also from Blair), was named Pastor late in 1918. Father
O'Driscoll was born in County Cork, Ireland in 1876; he attended All Hallow's College in
Dublin where he was ordained in 1902. He came directly to Nebraska and served in several
locations before arriving at St. Philip Neri, where he stayed until his death in 1930.
At some point during Father O'Driscoll's pastorate,
the original alter of the church was replaced with a new alter contributed by Thomas
Fitzgerald, father of Dorothy Fitzgerald Carl, in memory of his wife who had died when
Dorothy was about two years old.
Money was very, very scarce in those years, and many
times the collection basket held only nickels and dimes. It was said that one Sunday
Father was so exasperated that he took off his cassock and took up the basket himself and
made the rounds, and if a person didn't put something in the basket, Father stood shaking
the basket until he did. Father then introduced a system of weekly envelopes for
contributions, and finally was able to buy the land with house north of the rectory and
church for $3,000. A school was built on the site in 1922 at a cost of $75,000. The house
served as a convent for the Teaching Sisters of St. Francis from Clinton, Iowa.
Prior to the building of the school, the first floor
of the convent was converted to school rooms, and the second floor served as sleeping
quarters for the nuns. Their kitchen was a lean-to on the back of the house. Enrollment in
the school was around twenty-five. Many times the sisters shared their small quarters with
boarding students who could not travel back and forth each day because of the distance of
their homes; some stayed at the rectory.
Although Father O'Driscoll paid his housekeeper and
the few teachers $300 per year each, he drew a salary in 1925 of only $100. Father, being
a very frugal man, kept expenses to a minimum, and parishioners sometimes grumbled because
the school and church were cold. As enrollment in the school increased, the seventh and
eighth grades used the room behind the alter of the church, where Father Barrett had first
lived, as their school room. Father bought a school carriage and talked Mr. Sam Smith into
using his beautiful team to transport children to and from school.
Great thanks is due to the employees, volunteers, and
ministers of our school and parish who carry on the work of their forbearers.
From the earliest days of the St. Philip Neri Parish,
it has served as a community and supplied the spiritual, educational, social and sometimes
physical needs of its people. St. Philip Neri remains the parish with the largest
geographical boundaries within the Omaha Metropolitan area. From the acreages of Ponca
Hills to the urban byways of Florence, St. Philip Neri continues to be a focal point for
people of great diversity.
As St. Philip Neri Parish has served its members for
over 90 years, so have its parishioners served the parish. Its school now provides for
over 220 students, and its church administers to 875 families. Its splendid school, many
active parish organizations, ministers and debt-free facilities all honor the many
sacrifices of its parishioners, both past and present.