With the arrival of the Santa Fe Railroad at Fort Madison during the late 1880's, the town grew dramatically. In the two decades from 1880
to 1900 the population doubled from a mere 4,700 to nearly 10,000 residents. "Sand Prairie," or "Santa Fe Prairie" as the area west of town
was sometimes called, began to change appearance. The corn fields and farms gave way to dirt streets, houses and stores as the newcomers
continued to pour into town and build new homes.
This growth was not without problems. Paved streets and city services were almost non-existent west of 18th street. Even churches and schools had to be built to accommodate the many new arrivals who chose to live near the Santa Fe yards where they were employed. One perceptive man who responded to the needs of the new arrivals was Father Louis DeCailly, the Pastor of St. Joseph's Catholic Church. He recognized the difficulties Catholic families in the Fort Madison area experienced in sending their children to the east end of town to school or to attend church.
In response to their needs, Father DeCailly established a Catholic mission school in Ivo Dentz' two story tin shop near the northwest corner of Union and Santa Fe Avenues (23rd Street and Avenue L). The school was operated by the Sisters of Humility from St. Joseph's parish and Father DeCailly came to say Mass at the school on Sundays. By the end of the first year, Sacred Heart Mission had 54 students attending the school and 65 families in the congregation. The School Sisters of Notre Dame came to staff the school and remained with the parish until 1983.
Having quickly outgrown the little tin shop, Father DeCailly erected a small structure with his own money at 2825 Santa Fe Avenue (Avenue L) and moved the school to the new building. On July 7, 1893, the Bishop of the Diocese recognized DeCailly's efforts by officially authorizing the formation of a new parish congregation. He appointed the Reverend Peter Hoffman as its first Pastor. Starting with no house, no ground and no money, Father Hoffman was a bit taken back by his assignment. It is no wonder that he once described his new surroundings as "Wilderness." With the vigor and enthusiasm of youth he immediatiately started to work to develop the parish. Ground was acquired at the corner of Union Avenue and Des Moines Street (23rd and I), and the cornerstone for a new brick school building was laid on August 13, 1893.
During the construction of this school the old tin shop was again used as a church. The parish was a poor one, and so were its furnishings. Father Hoffman had but a single set of vestments which he had been given for this first Mass. Silk handkerchiefs were used to line the tabernacle and the server's altar bell had been taken from the harness of a mule. In spite of these humble beginnings, the parish grew rapidly. With the opening of the new school building enrollment jumped to 80 students, even though there was a tuition fee of 50 cents per month per pupil. In 1897, Henry Heying gave the parish $20,000 of land and $8,000 to construct a church.
As the church was being built torrential rains almost proved disastrous to the open foundation. The city Fire Department's Old Silsby pumper, still on display at the historical Society's museum, saved the day be pumping the excavation dry before the walls collapsed.
The beautiful church of Bedford stone was completed in October of 1900 but it was a number of years before the three massive bells -- weighing 3000, 5500, and 7000 lbs. -- were finally installed in the tower.
Reverend Leo Roling was appointed Pastor in 1925, Reverend Edwin Seidel in 1939, Reverend Joseph Hines in 1971 and Robert Amborn in 1981. Under their leadership the parish continued to grow. There was an addition to the school, and a convent for nuns was built in 1921. A large hall for social activities was constructed in 1927, a kindergarten building added in 1942, and a second school building in 1955. In between there were frequent remodeling projects to upgrade existing buildings.
In this, its 100th year, Sacred Heart parish is far removed from its humblle beginnings in a tin shop on the outskirts of town. The community has grown westward until the church is now located in almost the exact geographical center of the town. Those original 65 families have now grown to more than 700, making it the largest congregation in the city of Fort Madison.