St. Mary Magdalene Parish celebrates 150 years
April 18, 2019
Defining the boundaries of downtown Omaha’s St. Mary Magdalene Parish calls to mind the hymn that begins: “In Christ there is no east or west/In Him no south or north.”
Numerous Catholics on both sides of the Missouri River feel part of one of the city’s oldest parishes, which will celebrate its 150th anniversary with special events Aug. 10-12.
St. Mary Magdalene’s historic 1902 church building at 19th and Dodge streets draws an average of 2,300 worshipers across seven weekend Masses. Substantial numbers find their way there for three Masses every weekday (with an equal number of daily confession periods) and two daytime Masses on Saturdays. That’s 27 Masses a week.
Yet the parish has only 364 registered families — and the majority of those live outside the parish’s downtown service area, said Father Rodney Adams, St. Mary Magdalene’s seventh pastor since its founding.
“So many people are here because they had a special spiritual experience at our parish (or) they got married here,” said Father Adams, an Omaha native who in 2016 succeeded Msgr. James Gilg as pastor. “Some people really appreciate the simplicity of the liturgies here.”
The parish’s citywide embrace will be reflected in the anniversary events, which include a 7 p.m. Friday concert by Omaha singing group Mulberry Lane — which annually performs there at Christmas before Midnight Mass — and music at the 12:15 p.m. Sunday Mass by the choir of west Omaha’s St. Stephen the Martyr Parish.
Mulberry Lane member Allie (Rizzuto) Hengen said she and her three sisters aren’t registered members of the parish, but they sometimes attend Mass there.
“The church has a treasured place in our hearts, as it brings us together every year at Christmastime to sing our favorite hymns in harmony,” said Hengen, a member of St. Leo the Great Parish.
With relatively few actual members, where do the parish’s worshipers come from?
They come on weekdays from downtown offices — particularly on holy days of obligation — and all the time from throughout the Omaha-Council Bluffs area, said Ed Fitzgerald, a member of St. Mary Magdalene’s parish council.
Many are attracted by the parish’s compact daily liturgies, which long have eschewed music and kept homilies short. Adams calls attention to the parish’s active St. Vincent de Paul Society and Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program. Mostly, though, it focuses on preaching God’s word and offering the sacraments.
“We have funerals, we have baptisms, we have weddings, we have 27 Masses a week,” Fitzgerald said. “We bring in supply priests to help us out from time to time.”
St. Mary Magdalene might have disappeared long ago but for its longest-serving pastor, Msgr. Bernard Sinne, said Father Adams and parish historian Robert Klein Engler.
Called directly from Germany, Msgr. Sinne arrived in 1904 to continue the mission to German-speaking Catholics begun by Father Otto Groenebaum in 1867.
Father Groenebaum celebrated the first Mass on Christmas Day 1868 in the original church at 16th and Douglas Streets.
Father George Glauber, Father Groenebaum’s 1881 successor and Msgr. Sinne’s predecessor, served through the first church’s destruction in an 1894 fire, the eight-year lifespan of a tiny second church at the original site — known as the “doll church” — and construction of the current church.
As World War I ended, Msgr. Sinne faced several challenges. Downtown Omaha had taken on an urban character. The German families had largely left to join St. Joseph Church, which Father Glauber helped found south of downtown in 1886. And Omaha leaders had resolved to reduce Dodge Street’s motorist-unfriendly grade by lowering the street below St. Mary Magdalene’s foundations.
Msgr. Sinne responded by raising $275,000 and enlisting Omaha architect John Latenser’s help to “build down” his church to the lowered street. The 1919-20 project, which added a new level below the original one, was “the greatest cross that ever visited me,” Msrg. Sinne once told the Omaha World-Herald.
But St. Mary Magdalene survived, as it would when urban-renewal projects again threatened the church’s physical survival in the 1970s.
“(Msgr.) Sinne really had a passionate vision, didn’t he?” Father Adams said. “He was going to do anything he could to keep this parish in downtown Omaha.”
He would serve the parish until shortly before his 1961 death, focusing its mission ever more strongly on the Eucharist. The large number of Masses each week testifies to that, Engler said, as does the church’s Blessed Sacrament Chapel, built in 1940 with funds from parishioner Margaret P. Hynes.
And Msgr. Sinne left behind one of Omaha’s most stunning stained-glass displays, turning to the Franz Mayer Co. of Munich to design the windows in the new, ground-floor level. Engler said the origins of the now-upper-level windows are more obscure.
The windows along the current ground floor, including the World War I-themed “The Merciful Samaritan at the Battlefield,” drew Engler’s attention while visiting family members in 2013. When he retired as a college professor in Chicago a year later, he moved to Omaha and joined the parish.
“I heard a voice telling me, ‘Look into this, you need to learn about it,’” said Engler, 72, who has touted St. Mary Magdalene’s stained glass in several articles and letters for Omaha publications.
Engler doesn’t live inside the official parish boundaries. Neither does Fitzgerald, 77, who lives near 90th and Dodge streets but became a registered parishioner after retiring as Boys Town’s vice president of finance in 2000.
Visitors’ generosity, Fitzgerald said, allows St. Mary Magdalene to donate half its collections to Catholic ministries across Omaha and the archdiocese. They helped pay for a new church steeple installed in 2007, during Msgr. Gilg’s 18-year pastorate. They’re also helping to finance a $1 million replacement of the church’s long-neglected roofs; about $700,000 has been raised thus far, Father Adams said.