Immaculate Conception has a colorful history dating back 136 years. There was a great need back in the late 1800’s for spiritual guidance, leadership, and community worship in Southwest Missouri. This was formally to take place on January 22, 1868 when Immaculate Conception was “born.” Fr. Francis W. Graham was the first pastor to minister to 110 Catholics. The first services were held in Phelps Hall, located at the current site of the Woodruff Building. The first mass said in the new church was on August 15, 1868. Fr. Graham was transferred to Sedalia and Fr. Theodore Kussman was named the second pastor of Immaculate Conception. Due to the increasing population, property was purchased at the corner of Campbell and Tampa in 1874. It was not until ten years later that the cornerstone for a massive Gothic, red brick church was put in place. It was a landmark for Springfieldians for many years. Its main altar was donated by Richard Everts, a local lumbar dealer. August Lohmeyer, a cabinet dealer, was responsible for much of the work on the interior. The church bell weighed over a tone and for may years signaled the call to worship.
Fr. Kussman preached his last homily on August 9, 1885 and Fr. Louis Porta came on August 15, 1885 and served until this death on February 22, 1892. Fr. Porta oversaw the completion of the new church and was the first Catholic priest to die in Springfield. To Honor his pastorate, Fr. Porta was interred beneath the main altar. Years later, his remains were moved to St. Mary’s Cemetery. Fr. Francis Curran administered the parish for six weeks until Fr. Maurus Eckstein, O.S.B. was appointed pastor. Fr. Eckstein began his duties March 16, 1892 and served 14 months before leaving to establish St. Joseph’s parish where he remained for 37 years. On June 1, 1893, Fr. John Lilly was named pastor and by this time the parish was well established and into a very stable period of existence. The church building was paid off and Fr. Lilly was free to concentrate on building the church community. Fr. Lilly retired in 1916 after seeing many changes take place in Springfield. Fr. William Brophy came to Immaculate Conception and remained until the end of 1922. He as replaced by Fr. Dennis O’Driscoll in January 1923. Fr. O’Driscoll stayed until September 5, 1941. He had a very difficult time keeping the parish afloat due to the population shifts and the growth of other parishes in the city. Immaculate Conception’s population had been dramatically reduced and this was coupled with difficult financial times of the Depression. On October 12, 1941, Fr. Michael Baumgarten stepped forward to meet the challenges of these difficult times. He remained at Immaculate Conception until September 11, 1955, when the final services in the old church building were held; and shortly thereafter, it was torn down (the oldest Catholic Church in southwest Missouri). In those 14 years, Fr. Michael made himself known to the entire community. He worked hard to increase the parish family, actively sought new converts to the faith, , and fought daily with repairs to maintain the church property. Fr. Michael was a unique priest. His charity was boundless in helping others. He was well known in the Springfield community and certainly put Immaculate Conception back on track.
Shortly after Fr. Michael’s leaving, the new Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau was established on July 2, 1956. Springfield was designated as See and Most Rev. Charles H. Helmsing was appointed our first bishop. In 1957, an era ended with the demolition of the old Immaculate Conception church building. Bishop Helming had plans for continued growth with Immaculate Conception situated closer to the growing Springfield Catholic population. Fr. Joseph Brophy was appointed pastor in April 1957 and during his early pastorate, Fr. Joseph was to oversee the construction of a new church building on the northeast corner of Cherokee and Fremont. Between April 1957 and August 3, 1958, when the first mas was offered in the new church, Fr. Brophy used the auditorium of St. John’s School of Nursing for mass and church meetings. Fr. Brophy saw many changes within the church and parish; the completion of a church, school and convent. Vatican II brought changes in the liturgy as well as new placement of the altar. Under the direction of Fr. Brophy, the inception of several programs started: St. Vincent de Paul Society, first men’s Cursillo movement, several choirs, Legion of Mary Society, first CCD Program, etc.
In June 1965, our second bishop, The Most Rev. Ignatius Strecker, appointed Fr. John Rynish as pastor. He was the first pastor to work with our present day Parish Councils. He also oversaw the purchase of our current 15 acre site in 1973, for $45,000 from Mrs. Ralph Compton Sr. During the period of time when Bishop Strecker left our Diocese for Kansas, Fr. Rynish served as the administrator of the Dioceses until April 1970, when the Most Rev. William Baum as appointed Archbishop to Washington and again Msgr. Rynish served as administrator until December 1973, when the Most Rev. Bernard F. Law became our fourth bishop. On August 1, 1977, Monsignor Philip A. Bucher came to Immaculate Conception for the second time. By the spring of 1978. Bishop Law negotiated for the sale of the church property at Cherokee and Fremont with St. John’s Regional Health Center. Negotiations were completed by May 1978, and groundbreaking began on the currently building at 3555 South Fremont in 1979. The church was dedicated on August 31, 1981. Also included in the church proper are educational facilities for Preschool through 8th grade, a gym, cafeteria, and priest’s residence.
On October 23, 1984, the Most Rev. John J. Leibrecht was appointed the fifth bishop of Springfield. Under Msgr. Bucher, Immaculate Conception grew to over 1150 families. Fr. Stephen Schneider came in 1991 and more growth in the physical plant occurred, along with the dedication of the grotto on August 15, 1999. In August 2001, Fr. Lewis Hejna arrived and more building ensued with a new library and media center, a fine arts center, and doubling the size of the parish community room. From humble beginnings Immaculate Conception grew to over 1300 families. Over a period of five years more history has been written at Immaculate Conception and in our diocese.
Fr. Lewis Hejna has made it a tradition to present a musical every year since 2003 starting with: “The King and I," "The Hobbit," "Cinderella," "Oliver Twist, " "Aladdin and His Wonderful Magical Lamp” and “Pocahontas.” “The Sound of Music” is slated for the summer and “Robin Hood” will be presented after school starts. The musicals have been memorable experiences for many children at Immaculate Conception School.
Our diocese was gearing up for a huge 50th anniversary celebration. On August 21, 2005, Bishop John J. Leibrecht presided over several masses at St. Agnes Cathedral in Springfield and on August 28th at St. Mary’s in Cape Girardeau to begin a yearlong celebration of the 50th anniversary of Catholics in southern Missouri. Throughout the year various observances were held in parishes, missions, and schools. The theme of the year was: “Reflect on the Past, Look to the Future, and Continue on Jesus’ Mission.” A great deal of emphasis was given to the patron saints of our diocese: St. Pius X and St. Rose Philippine Duchesne with their images being placed on prayer cards, etc. to be prayed throughout the year. This year long celebration culminated in a mass in Cape Girardeau at the Show-Me Center on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2006 and at the University Plaza Convention Center in Springfield, on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2006.
As our diocese began its golden anniversary, St. Francis of Assisi in Nixa celebrated its first. This newest parish in the diocese is structured to be “lay-driven, not clergy run,” said Mark Boyer, pastor. Lay people have played an integral part of our diocese over the course of fifty years being asked to step into leadership roles. A history of the diocese and each parish were compiled into a book entitled “The Catholic Church in Southern Missouri.” It is a wonderful pictorial history of our diocese. With the 50th anniversary celebration coming to an end it was also Bishop Leibrecht’s end of twenty-three years as fifth bishop of southern Missouri as he turned 75 years, the official retirement age.
The announcement was made in January 2008 that the new bishop would be James Vann Johnston, Jr. of Knoxville, Tennessee. The mass was held in the Springfield Exposition Center on March 31, 2008 with 3,000 people in attendance. The episcopal ordination of James V. Johnston, Jr. drew nineteen bishops and archbishops from around the nation. Abp. Raymond L. Burke served as principal consecrator of the liturgy. People who attended found the majesty and ritual of the ordination to be very moving.
As we move forward at Immaculate Conception a renovation of the office area, angel room, both restrooms, gathering area (the Blessed Mother statue), and sacristies took place over the summer of 2009. All of these improvements will better serve the growing needs of our parish community.
Continuing on with our 2014 update at Immaculate Conception we find more growth in the school with an Early Learning Center being built in 2011. On Monday, May 2nd, Bishop Johnston celebrated an all-school Mass at Immaculate Conception. Following the Mass, the student body gathered on the back parking lot with Bishop Johnston, Principal Paula Baird, and Fr. Lewis breaking ground for the new facility. The Bishop prayed the ground-breaking prayer from the Book of Blessing, "my brothers and sisters, that God will bring this construction to successful completion and that His protection will keep those who work on it safe from injury." The Early Learning Center was completed on time and opened in the fall housing two kindergarten classes, restrooms, etc. A three year preschool program has been implemented (2-5 days) and new play-ground equipment acquired.
In 2009 "Robin Hood-the Courtship of Allan A'Dale" was performed followed by "Young Hercules" in 2010, "Tom and Huckleberry" in 2011, "Wonder in Aliceland" in 2012 and "Lumberjacks and Weddingbelles" in 2013. All of these extra activities would not be possible without the able assistance of our associate pastors throughout the years: Fr. Philip M.Binh Tran, Fr. Charles Pham, Fr. Simon Le and Fr. Alphonse Tri Vu. Our senior priest-in-residence, Msgr. Raymond Orf served Immaculate Conception from 2002 to October of 2013. Monsignor is currently living at Regina Cleri in St. Louis. We certainly miss his presence and in all the many capacities he served our parish. In the fall of 2012 our pastor, Fr. Lewis Hejna, was named by Bishop Johnston to serve as chaplain of Springfield Catholic High School.
Fr. Lewis spends his time split between Immaculate Conception and Springfield Catholic High School. As our church looks toward helping feed the needy of our area, our Immaculate Conception Church St. Vincent de Paul has relied on many resources. A raised bed garden for vegetables has been planted every year on the school grounds. Many fresh vegetables are generated from this plot and given to families. Also helping provide canned goods every month are the children of Immaculate Conception School. The first Friday of every month brings many cans into the food pantry.
Boy Scout Troop 210 at Immaculate Conception has a "Scouting for Food" project once a year yielding huge amounts of food. Members of the parish are given a grocery bag one week at mass and are asked to fill the bag and bring it back the following week. This drive has always been a tremendous success.
St. Vincent de Paul is fortunate to receive over twenty dozen eggs from Trinity Hills on a monthly basis. Trinity Hills was founded by the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau on March 25, 2011 and is located on 114 acres of farm land in the Ozarks of Southern Missouri.
Trinity Hills is a center for prayer, service and education and also is an evangelization and retreat facility. It has a working production farm with chickens, sheep and goats. Scout troops and seminarians have helped build trails on the grounds so there is always work in progress.
The Knights of Columbus Council at Immaculate Council has been busy over the past couple of years providing breakfast to parishioners after the 8:00am and 10:00am Masses several times a year. In the fall of 2011 the Council gave its endorsement to the Knights of Columbus Ultrasound Initiative that raised funds for ultrasound machines for pregnancy care centers; wherein local Council fundraising would be matched by the Supreme Council of the Knights of Columbus. The objective would be to reduce the number of abortions in Missouri by half in five years. The help of pledged donations given by parishioners and a Baby Bottle fundraiser, the Immaculate Conception Knights of Columbus Council raised enough money to fund a more expensive mobile ultrasound machine for the Springfield Pregnancy Care Center.
Many women in our church as well as other Catholic churches in our area have contributed much time and talent over the past year to the Life House Crisis Maternity Home housed in the former Carmelite Monastery in south Springfield. Offices for Southwest Missouri Catholic Charities are also located in this monastery. Our Welcome Ministry at Immaculate Conception has been revitalized and currently has members of the parish greeting new families with information and a tour of the church building and grounds. New parishioners are pictured in our Intercom newspaper and also on a bulletin board in the Gathering Area.
Our new families are given an opportunity to become part of our Immaculate Conception Church community which is 1100 strong. As we continue to move forward we say a fond farewell to Fr. Lewis after thirteen years at Immaculate Conception. He will be missed but Fr. Lewis left such a legacy for our children who participated in the many musicals over the past years. Our memories will forever be embedded with Christmas lights and trees adorned with decorations that surpass the imagination.
We welcome Fr. Tom Kiefer as our new pastor and hope in the coming years we will always strive to be a Community of Caring Christians. (history compiled by Dianne Hendley)