HOT SPRINGS — St. Mary of the Springs Church has been at the crossroads of Hot Springs for most of the city’s history.
When the first parish was founded in Hot Springs, there was no Arlington Hotel and Majestic Hotel or Bath House Row. There was no Lake Ouachita or Lake Hamilton. And there was no Oaklawn Park.
But there was a group of Catholics, mostly Irish, who worshiped in hotels and homes and sought to build their religious home. Father Patrick McGowan was the first priest to serve Hot Springs and he had to ride horseback from Helena to say Mass.
“This is family. This is home,” said Nathalie “Nat” Martin, 91, the oldest member of St. Mary Parish.
“St. Mary’s is very much a family,” said Father George Sanders, who was named pastor in 2014. “A vision of mine is all of us must work together.”
Bishop Edward M. Fitzgerald and Father Patrick H. Garaghty, the first pastor, dedicated St. Mary Church on May 9, 1869, before “a large congregation,” according to the Aug. 19, 1869, Hot Springs Courier.
People were forced to cross over Hot Springs Creek on a wooden planked bridge to reach the 50-foot-by-30-foot wooden church. The land, which was shoehorned between West Mountain and Central and Whittington avenues, was acquired from Hiram S. Whittington, a founder of the city.
The church was originally named St. Mary Church, but was later renamed St. Mary of the Springs to show a connection between the church and Hot Springs. It was the first Catholic church in the area and the sixth Catholic parish in the state, behind churches in Little Rock, Plum Bayou, Helena, Fort Smith and Pocahontas.
St. Mary’s location at Whittington Junction was in 1869 the gateway to Hot Springs where Park Avenue, Central and Whittington avenues came together. Hot Springs then had a population of only 1,300 people and very few people knew of its, now famous, hot springs.
“This was the old way you came into Hot Springs,” Martin said. “Everyone had to pass by here.”
Martin was born at St. Joseph Hospital. She was baptized, received First Communion and was confirmed at St. Mary.
Martin said Msgr. William J. Carroll, who was pastor for 40 years, said the visitors to Hot Springs were the Church’s fortune.
“Every Sunday we still had all of the old people from the parish. And then there were the tourists. Msgr. Carroll always said, ‘That’s where the money is.’ He would always go out to them after Mass and shake their hands,” Martin said. “That is how we got through the Depression.”
Some of the visitors could be in Hot Springs for the clean fun, like the hot baths, while others were in town for other forms of entertainment. And some of the parishioners were even in those more dubious professions.
The late Hot Springs Mayor Leo Patrick McLaughlin, who ran Hot Springs as an “open town” during the heydays of illegal gambling in the 1920s through the 1940s, was a member of St. Mary Parish.
“Everyone had something bad to say about him. He let all the gangsters run free. Everything illegal, he ran,” Martin said.
During the first 18 years of St. Mary’s history, a railroad was built, hotels and bath houses were opened and the city population had grown to almost 4,000 people. The size of the parish also grew forcing St. Mary in 1887 to leave the small wooden church and build a larger brick church, complete with stained glass windows.
In 1882, St. Mary Academy and in 1888 St. Joseph Hospital (now called CHS St. Vincent Hot Springs) were opened by the Sisters of Mercy. The Catholic community continued to grow in Hot Springs and a second parish, St. John the Baptist Church, was created in 1908. St. John was built further to the south to accommodate the growth of the city.
In August 1913, Father Carroll was named pastor. Nicknamed “The Padre of the Valley,” he was named a monsignor in 1929.
Msgr. Carroll faced many challenges including that he was appointed pastor of both parishes and St. Mary Church was outgrown and antiquated and needed to be replaced. Also Msgr. Carroll improved the quality of the education for the children of both parishes by merging St. Mary Academy with St. John School, according to St. John’s history.
In 1923, the second St. Mary Church was demolished and a new brick, stone and steel church was constructed in its place. The new church, which is still used today, was dedicated May 18, 1924. A new pastor was named at St. John in 1930, so Msgr. Carroll was able to focus most of his attention on St. Mary.
In February 1952, Msgr. Carroll contracted influenza, which developed into pneumonia. He died Oct. 8, 1953.
Msgr. James P. Gaffney was appointed pastor in 1954. As soon as he arrived at St. Mary he learned of a plan to build a shrine to the Blessed Mother from funds saved by parishioner Marie Schnebelen. He was inspired to build the shrine on property between the church and Central Avenue when Bishop Albert L. Fletcher said an oil company wanted to buy the land.
The shrine with the white Carrara marble statue of Our Lady of Grace, purchased by Schnebelen, was dedicated on Nov. 21, 1956.
A rosette stained glass window was added to the west wall of the church behind the choir loft in 1969 when the window was donated by James J. Dowds and Q. Byrum Hurst. The window once hung in the Buckhorn Bar, which was purchased and demolished by the two men.
Msgr. Leo Riedmueller served as pastor for 18 years, beginning in 1988. During that time, the first two deacons, Joe Harrison and Lee Leckner, were assigned to the parish. Also Msgr. Riedmueller bought property to the west of the church to build a parish hall and additional parking.
The groundbreaking for the parish hall was in May 2013 and the structure was dedicated by Bishop Anthony B. Taylor on June 20, 2014. The church offices were moved to the new building on July 11, 2014.
Msgr. Riedmueller died on Jan. 22, 2006, and Father Erik Pohlmeier, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church, was assigned double duties as pastor of St. Mary’s. In June 2010, Father William Thomas served as pastor until his death in 2012. Father Innocent Okore was appointed pastor from June 2012 until May 2013.
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