St. Mary's has its roots in Fort Madison's first Catholic parish, St. Joseph's, which was established in 1841.
With the rapid growth of the local immigrant German Catholic population, plans were formed in 1857 to build a large,
more centrally located church for St. Joseph's parish. However, the Civil War intervened and it wasn't until after
the end of the war in April, 1865 that lots were purchased. By Aug. 3, 1865 workmen were engaged in laying the
foundation for a new school and they broke ground on Aug. 21 for the new church building. St. Joseph's pastor, Fr.
John B. Weikman, was ambitiously following these new construction plans when a riot erupted among his parishioners
on Sun., Sept. 3 1865, caused by some local Catholics who were strongly opposed to moving the parish. This
controversy would remain unresolved for over 8 years and would result in various building delays and hard feelings
which would last for decades. In the meantime, construction continued and on Nov. 9, 1865 the new schoolhouse was
completed and dedicated. Fr. Weikman was replaced by Fr. Jacob Orth in May, 1866. Fr. Orth was determined in
proceeding with the new church for his St. Joseph's parish and pushed construction. The cornerstone for the immense
new church was laid on Sun., July 18, 1866 with much ceremony. Late in 1870, Fr. Orth was ready to move his parish,
but Bishop Hennesey wouldn't dedicate the new church until it was totally paid for. (There was still an indebtedness
of $7,000 on the original cost of over $40,000). Frustrated by this continued delay, Fr., Orth dedicated the new
church on Jan. 1, 1871 and moved his congregation. This is considered the "birthdate" of our parish. Whether caused
by Fr. Orth's own frustration over being caught in the middle of his feuding parishioners, or by the Bishop for having
dedicated the church prematurely, Fr. Orth was replaced as pastor of the church he built by Fr. Aloysius Meis on
Feb. 10, 1871.
For the new 3 years our parish fluctuated between being St. Joseph's and being the "German Catholic Church" (among other names) as different factions within the parish disputed. Finally, in Jan., 1874, the long-standing confusion was resolved with the old church receiving a new pastor and permanently becoming St. Joseph's; and the new church becoming a separate German parish dedicated to St. Mary of the Assumption.
Starting with about 1,000 members, St. Mary's doubled in size by 1887. With the coming of the Sate Fe Railroad in that year, Fort Madison expanded rapidly. St. Mary's had over 2,500 members when Sacred Heart Parish was formed from the western part of our parish in 1893. Currently St. Mary's is made up of 550 families (about 1,200 members).
Originally the language of our parish was German, but English started to replace it shortly after 1900 and the transition to English was hastened by the anti-German hysteria during WWI.
Our parish has always taken great pride in our grand, ornate church. Its towering steeple is one of Fort Madison's most well-known landmarks. In Sept., 1982 our church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.