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St. Mary's Church & School Collection

I am Chelsea Pokrzywinski, a first year graduate student at the University of Illinois studying library and information science. With a bachelor’s degree in history from ISU and the goal of working in a library or museum after graduate school, I felt the museum was the best place to learn what archivists do every day. I worked with several collections during my internship in the fall of 2015, but my main project involved the St. Mary’s Church and School Collection.

This collection was generously donated by the students and member of St. Mary’s Catholic Church with the goal of preserving their history. St Mary’s is one of the oldest churches in Bloomington, starting out as the German Catholic Church in 1867. Many prominent Bloomington families of German descent were members of the church and its school.

The collection has some great histories that have been written for church directories and school history projects over the years. A couple of my favorite pieces of the church collection are the minutes book of the 1885 building committee and a letter from Mr. Bernard Wall, City Attorney, dated July 18, 1950.

The Building Committee minutes contain a detailed record of the 1885 construction of St. Mary’s current building, designed by Bloomington architect George H. Miller and contractor Frank A. Weishaar. The minutes were handwritten in German and English by Father Hilary Hoelscher and include everything involved in construction of the building from costs to payments and pledge donations to keep the project on track.

The letter from Mr. Wall dealt with a recent change at St. Mary’s. Instead of hosting bingo, which could generate an amusement tax, St. Mary's would instead host a short lecture that cost $1.50 to attend. With admission one would receive two complimentary bingo cards for after the lecture, when a bingo game might happen to start. Mr. Wall, upon hearing of this, drafted a letter to the priest informing him this was not permissible and to end such practices immediately.

As time has passed the church has been through many changes. There was a new building in the 1880s, a new school in 1954, and many renovations to existing buildings over the years. The congregation itself has also changed through the past century. What started out as a German Catholic Church is now a church that holds mass in Spanish, which is helpful for new immigrants to McLean County.

The school originally shared space with the church until the new church was built in 1885. St. Mary’s School was operated by Ursuline sisters until 1883. In 1888 the Franciscan sisters arrived to manage the school, which is still under the Diocese of Peoria. The school staff has changed from mostly nuns and some priests in the classroom to a staff composed entirely of lay people. A highlight of the school collection is the St. Mary’s School Basketball Tournament program books. The collection hosts most of tournament program books starting in 1972 until 2004. Another gem is the permanent records of the graduating class of 1949 from St. Mary’s School.

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