History of the Church of the Incarnation


The Beginning of a Community

by Matthew J. Rieger (written 2009)


It was in the year 1907 that several members of St. Stephens Church on 22nd and Clinton approached Archbishop John Ireland, head of the Archdiocese of St. Paul, regarding the establishment of a new church south of Lake Street. The area was then considered the southern outskirts of Minneapolis. The Archbishop was reluctant to do so, however, because he felt the area, which was primarily open prairie with a scattering of homes, had too few Catholic families. Finally, after many meetings and several conferences with his Minneapolis priests, Archbishop Ireland appointed Father James M. Cleary as the founder and pastor of the new parish. This was in the summer of 1909.

Father Cleary was born in Dudham, Massachusetts on September 8, 1849, the son of Thomas and Julia Cleary who had come to this country from County Galway, Ireland. There were five other boys besides James in the family, and his father, a farmer, found it difficult to make a living from the stony soil. The family moved to Walworth County, Wisconsin where the future priest spent the greater part of his childhood attending public schools and caring for daily tasks around the farm. At the age of 15 years, young James was sent to St. Lawrence College near Fond du Lac and then to St. Francis College at Milwaukee. He finished his seminary course in 1871. Priesthood was conferred on the young man when he was but 22 years old. The ordination took place in the chapel of St. Francis Seminary on July 9, 1872. He celebrated his first mass the following Sunday in St. Peter's Church, East Troy, Wisconsin.




The young priest's first charge took in the missions along the Milwaukee railroad on the Prairie du Chen division. It was here that Father Cleary's strong leadership in temperance matters first asserted itself. Finding the abuse of liquor prevalent in that region, Father Cleary joined forces with the local inhabitants and opened unrelenting warfare on the liquor traffic. The result was that the locality was changed from a wide open town to a dry community. In 1873 Father Cleary took charge of the congregation at Sinsinawa Mound, and then in 1880 was appointed pastor of St. Mark's Church at Kenosha. For 12 years he served this parish and under his direction the beautiful church of St. James was erected, a school built and a convent and rectory established.
These early years would be important to Father Cleary in later years when he was called upon to start Incarnation, for not only was this a blueprint of what he would achieve, but it was during this period that he came in close contact with the Dominican Sisters.

In 1892 Father Cleary was invited by Archbishop John Ireland to come to the diocese of St. Paul. Resigning his Kenosha pastorate, he came to Minneapolis and during the fall and winter conducted meetings in public halls in the south part of the city on the doctrines of the Catholic faith. He soon became known as "The Public Hall Apostolate" and became exceedingly popular in Minneapolis. Father Cleary realized a need for a church to serve the people in the area south of the business district, and he organized and built the old St. Charles Church at 4th Street and 13th Avenue. The church was erected in 1894 and for 17 years Father Cleary was its pastor. His foresight told him that another new church would be needed in south Minneapolis, and in 1909 after St. Charles Church burned and upon appointment by Archbishop Ireland, Father Cleary commenced the labors that brought into being The Church of the Incarnation.


Early problems were abundant for Father Cleary. These included organization of the community, purchase of a land site for the new church and school, and the locating of a temporary facility which could serve as church in the interim. Organizing the church was undoubtedly the easiest of the three major problems for not only were the people in the area eager to have a church, but also many members of the St. Charles Church were eager to join Father Cleary's new church. To insure the possibility of taking out mortgages, a corporation was formed with Archbishop Ireland as president, Father James Cleary as vice president, Mr. Peter Carter as secretary, and Thomas E. Sands as treasurer. The Scribner- Kelly Land Company of Minneapolis donated a section of land on the corner of 38th and Pleasant Avenue for the erection of the church. To make the deed transaction legal, Father Cleary purchased the land for one dollar and signed the deed on September 17, 1909. 


The site for Incarnation at that time was a cornfield and the area around the church was so sparsely populated that the new church received the nickname "Cathedral of the Cornfields". Father Cleary was able to obtain the use of the Ark Lodge, a public hall, and the first mass celebration was on October 3, 1909. About 200 families attended the services. For 18 months the Ark Lodge was the home for the Incarnation Community until the new facility could be built. 




It was agreed to by Father Cleary and the parishioners that the new facility would serve a dual purpose. In most of Father Cleary's previous parishes a catholic school had always been a high priority. He believed that religion and education went hand in hand and that both made up the strength and growth of any community. Money was definitely needed for the construction of the composite church and school building. One of the first fundraisers held was a bazaar in an abandoned skating rink on the corner of Lake Street and First Avenue South. The net results were $6,101.00, then considered a large sum. Father Cleary also requested the assistance of the men of the parish in a pledge drive to help raise funds for the construction of, the new facility. During the winter of 1910 ground was broken for the first building; the cornerstone was laid by Archbishop Ireland on September 4, 1911.

The building was a substantial two story brick structure and was called the "Institute of the Incarnation" (Cleary Hall). On the first floor was an auditorium and temporary church with a seating capacity of 800. On the second floor were 6 classrooms. Father Cleary called on his old friends, the Sinsinawa Dominicans from the congregation of the Most Holy Rosary to open the school which had 160 pupils. This was on the 4th of September 1911. Sister Mary Raymunda, Superior, Sister Mary Antonia, Sister Mary Clarice and Sister Mary Columkille opened the school and started a relationship with the people of Incarnation which would last many years. At first only pupils in the first six grades were admitted so the first group to graduate was the class of 1914, which had 19 students. To accommodate the new sisters a wooden frame house was converted into a convent. This is the present site of Moynihan Hall.



Father Cleary and his two assistants, Reverend George Carroll and Reverend Waiter Daly were also in need of a residence.  Construction for the new rectory began in March of 1912 and was completed in October of that same year, at a cost of $20,814.00. The parish rectory was constructed as a three story building containing 16 large rooms and a large basement. 




The small parish began to grow immediately and with its famous founder, Father Cleary, at the head, it was not unusual to see real estate ads which read, "Lots for sale in Fr. Cleary's parish". One of the first major celebrations in the parish was Father Cleary's forty-first anniversary in the priesthood, on March 25, 1913. The mayor of Minneapolis presided and among the speakers were: the governor of Minnesota, president of the University of Minnesota, and Father Cleary's close friend, Archbishop John Ireland.

In May of 1916 a meeting took place between Father Cleary and many of the parishioners to begin the planning of a single church structure. A committee was established consisting of: T.E. Sands, Peter Carter, J.W. Moynihan, J.D. Coleman, J.C. Whelan, J.J. Quinn, Henry Reilly, and J.C. Donahue. The committee set a goal of raising funds of $100,000.00 to construct the new facility.

Construction began with the groundbreaking ceremony as Father Cleary turned the first spade full of dirt and declared the site to be the first Catholic church in South Minneapolis. The date was October 10, 1916.  The cornerstone of the church was laid on August 5, 1917,with Archbishop Ireland presiding. Inscribed on the stone was the text taken from the Gospel of St. John: "The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us': In the copper box placed in the cornerstone was a sheet of vellum upon which was written the date of the ceremony and stating that it took place when "Woodrow Wilson was president, when J.A.A. Burnquist was governor of Minnesota, when John Ireland was Archbishop of St. Paul, and when Father James Cleary was pastor of the church." Copies of the daily newspapers and three local Catholic weeklies were also included.  M.J. Murphy was head of the drive for funds which was carried on in 1918. The mens' club raised at the initial meeting about 1/4 of the $50,000 sought in that section of the campaign to pay debts on the new church. The opening was postponed until the second week of October due to the death of Archbishop Ireland. The civic opening was actually held on a Tuesday evening, the 8th of October. The principal address was given by Reverend J.M. Reardon. His subject was Religion and Patriotism': The civic opening followed the first mass in the new church by 2 days, that having been celebrated the previous Sunday. Solemn blessing of the edifice was deferred until after installation of the pipe organ. On October 3, 1920, the church was dedicated at services conducted by Father Cleary, founder and pastor, Archbishop Austin Dowling (who succeeded Archbishop Ireland), Monsignor George Herr of Dubuque, Iowa, and several Twin Cities priests.

In July of 1922 Father Cleary celebrated his golden jubilee, and on May 4, 1924 was elevated to the rank of Monsignor at special services conducted at the church. Archbishop Dowling officiated at the ceremony of investiture.  This was the crowning achievement for a man who had devoted his life to God and to help work for the good and welfare of God's people.

Beginning in the year 1909 and extending into 1922 a great influx of people into the parish took place. In just 17 years the number of families grew from 200 to 1500. Many factors contributed to this substantial expansion. The parish was situated in a very desirable location with its proximity to the lakes and its access to major streets on the south side. Father Cleary's popularity and reputation certainly played a very important role, as did that of Archbishop Ireland. Ireland, who many people during this period believed was the most important religious figure in the United States, and Monsignor Cleary were very close. The friendship between these two very dedicated Irishmen may have been one of the contributing factors for the physical size of Incarnation and that Masqueray was the architect. Most assuredly Archbishop Ireland's role in the population growth of Incarnation cannot be understated. He recommended many a Catholic couple to move into Monsignor Cleary's parish on the south side of Minneapolis.

In 1922 the facilities at Incarnation still could not keep up with the increasing number of young families moving into the parish. A division of the parish was attempted to relieve some of the demand that this growth had brought on. A daughter parish was established in 1922 -- the Church of the Annunciation located on 54th and Lyndale. But still there was no appreciable improvement of the problem. In fact, despite the decreased size of the parish, the enrollment of the school still climbed.

With the enrollment of the school going up, the number of sisters coming to teach was also on the rise. The parish purchased a vacant lot from the city on the southwest corner of 37th Street and Pleasant Avenue to construct a new convent. After eight months, in December of 1923, it was completed at a cost of $84,412.00. It could accommodate 30 sisters and afforded a chapel, kitchen, dining room, community room with sun porch, four small parlors and two music rooms as well as a spacious lawn area. A bazaar was held the following November and the proceeds were used to defray part of the expense of furnishing the convent.


The following year the school was still congested so a new room was opened in the old convent.  An addition to Cleary Hall was completed in October of 1929, increasing the number of classrooms to 16. June 28, 1928, was a very happy day for all when Father Kenneth Kelly of the Order of Preachers (and a graduate of Incarnation school) celebrated his first mass at Incarnation Church.  On May 25, 1933, the beloved pastor and founder of Incarnation, Monsignor James M. Cleary, died at the age of 83.  Hospitalized with a hip fracture since March 30 of that year, it was still believed that he would be able to celebrate the 61st anniversary of his priesthood which would have been on July 9th. His death and funeral made front page headlines in the Minneapolis paper. Monsignor Humphrey Moynihan stated in his funeral sermon for Monsignor Cleary that "his glory was his simplicity of heart and his conviction of conscience".

Monsignor Humphrey Moynihan was appointed pastor of Incarnation on July 1, 1933. He was born on October 22, 1864 in Limerick, Ireland and established a brilliant record in the schools he attended. His marked scholastic abilities caused his superiors to recommend him to Archbishop Ireland as a promising candidate for the faculty of the new St. Paul Seminary. Accordingly, he was sent to Rome for further study where he acquitted himself with distinction. In 1892 he was appointed to the faculty of the St. Paul Seminary, carrying out his duties as a prefect of studies so ably that he was given the presidency of St. Thomas College in April, 1903. In that capacity he increased the enrollment of the school from some 253 students to the record figure of 1059 students making it one of the ranking military schools of the country.

In 1921 he became rector of the St. Paul Seminary and while holding this office was raised to the dignity of Monsignor in February, 1924. And then on July 1, 1933, at the age 60, Monsignor Humphrey Moynihan became the pastor of one of the largest parishes in the St. Paul diocese, Incarnation.

In 1934, Incarnation celebrated its Silver Jubilee.Archbishop John Gregory Murray delivered the sermon for the high mass, Monsignor Moynihan was the celebrant and he was assisted by the Reverend John Ryan, Reverend John Phelan, Reverend Paul Colbert and Reverend Harold Duan. The secretary of the parish at that time was Peter Carter, who had held that post since the founding of the church.  Also in 1934, even with the pressure of the depression, construction of a new school was begun. It was located on the site of the old convent and would tie all four corners of 38th and Pleasant together as the parish of Incarnation. The new school was completed in February of 1935 at a cost of $135,000.00 and was named Moynihan Hall. It was considered by many to be the newest and finest educational facility of the time in the city of Minneapolis. The new school consisted of 8 classrooms, a gymnasium, and a new auditorium. Monsignor Moynihan also furnished the parish with a library containing 5,000 volumes. A kindergarten as well was located in a house near the new Moynihan Hall. Over a span of 26 years, the - school had expanded from 6 to 24 classrooms with an enrollment of 937 pupils.

In the fall of 1942 the school lunch program was aided by the Federal Lunch Program. Under the Works Progress Administration a seven cent lunch was provided and served by government employees. This signified the beginning of direct government aid to the school lunch program. In 1943 sirens screamed and many came running from all corners -- Moynihan Hall was on fire! There was much smoke, but very little damage, however. Defective wiring in the ceiling proved to be the cause.

On December 24, 1943, Monsignor Humphrey Moynihan, pastor of Incarnation for 10 years, passed away at the age of 79. He had influenced the parish in a two-fold manner: by example of his own life and by the ministrations of his assistants who had been trained under his regime in the seminary. The dignity, holiness, kindliness, and love of God which so marked his own life inevitably communicated themselves to those under his charge and welded the
people of his parish into a congregation outstanding for its support of many worthy causes. Father James Moynihan was appointed to succeed his brother and took up his new duties on December 29, 1943.

Father James Moynihan was born in Abbeyville, Limerick, Ireland in 1882. He received his early education at Rockwell College, Tipperary, and at St. Munchins College, Limerick. Coming to the United States at the age of 16, he continued his education at the St. Paul Seminary, studying philosophy. He was then sent to the American College in Rome. Upon the completion of the theology course he was ordained in Rome in 1907. He returned to St. Paul and was assigned to the faculty of St. Thomas College. In 1933 he became president of the Institution where he served until his appointment to Incarnation.

In 1948 the parish boundaries were changed. Two new parishes bordered Incarnation: Visitation on the southwest and St. Joan of Arc on the southeast. This new division was to help alleviate the enrollment problem again, but the school still housed 984 in the fall of 1948. On June 19, 1951 Father James Moynihan was elevated to the rank of Monsignor. Archbishop Murray officiated and a reception was held in the school auditorium. Enrollment for that year
was up to 1005.


On February 12, 1959, Monsignor James Moynihan who had suffered from a heart ailment died at the age of 76. Archbishop William O. Brady celebrated the requiem mass. One of Monsignor Moynihan's crowning achievements at Incarnation was the finishing of a biography of Archbishop John Ireland which was started by Humphrey Moynihan many years earlier. On March 2, 1949 Father Donald Gormley assumed duties at Incarnation. Monsignor Gormley was born in Minneapolis on August 15,1895 and studied at St. Thomas College and the St. Paul Seminary. He was ordained in 1924 by Archbishop Dowling. He spend almost 35 years at St. Thomas Academy and College. He was principal at the academy for a time and was registrar of the college when he was appointed to Incarnation.

1959 was an important year in the history of Incarnation. Not only was there a new pastor, but also it was the golden jubilee year. The highlight of the jubilee year was the consecration of the Church of the Incarnation on October 19, 1959. The 4 hour ceremony was performed by Archbishop William O. Brady.

A Catholic church is deemed appropriate for consecration when it is essentially complete and free of debt; is built of substantial and monumental materials and when it is certain that the building will never be put to secular use. In 1959 the only other Catholic church in Minneapolis to have been consecrated was the Basilica of St. Mary. Sealed in the altar of Incarnation church during the ceremony were the relics of 2 martyrs: St. Clement who was pope from 88 to 97 and St. Adrian who was martyred about 303.

The present day organ was also installed in 1959. The organ was built by the Wicks Organ Co. of Highland, Illinois, designed by Father Kuncl of St. Paul, and installed by Alfred Bender, a local Wicks representative. The organ is installed behind the facade of the original organ, which was rebuilt and installed in another church in the area. The design of the organ is "middle of the road" between Classic and Romantic styles, very typical of organs installed in Catholic churches at the time, when there was comparatively little congregational singing. The organ has 4 divisions: great, swell, choir and pedal. There are 29 ranks, or sets of pipes, controlled by a three-manual and pedal drawknob console. Action is direct- electric, a system pioneered by the Wicks Co.


Father Donald Gormley was elevated to Monsignor on February 16, 1960. His concern, like that of his predecessors was the imbalance between the growing student population and the dwindling available space in the school buildings. Through studies of the current school facilities and projections of what the future enrollment could be, it was decided with much debate that an additional school facility was needed. The new addition was to be situated adjacent to Moynihan Hall and even though of contemporary design it was to be complementary to the older building. It was also decided that the building would be supported by stilt-like columns, thus providing an all year playground and parking lot as well as a covered area for parish activities such as Oktoberfest.  Construction began late in 1961 and extended into the winter of 1963. The new facility provided 9 additional classrooms. Each room had tiled walls, an equipment closet, blackboards in front and on the sides. There was a sink and drinking fountain at the rear of each room. Also the building housed a modern science lab, an equipped library and general offices. It was proposed during the planning sessions that if the student population should decrease in the future, Moynihan Hall, including the addition, could easily be converted into a high school accommodating 500 students. To finance the new addition an appeal was initiated, a minimum weekly collection of $6,151.00 was established and the goal of $300,000.00 was met in one year.

The 1960's were a boom period for the school at Incarnation. Enrollment during this period would be consistently over the 1,000 mark. 1961 marked the Golden Jubilee for the Dominican Sisters. From the original four sisters in 1911 the convent had grown to now house 23.  Monsignor Gormley retired from Incarnation in the year 1970. The new leadership of the parish would have to adjust now to a downturn in the membership and steady decreases in enrollment of the school. Several factors contributing to this were the growth of the suburbs which were drawing many young families out of what now was considered an inner-city parish, the average size of families being cut almost in half, and new grade schools which were opening in surrounding parishes. But the people of Incarnation were undaunted. Like the past leaders of their parish, they too, believed that a Catholic school education was invaluable.  

Father Frederich Mertz took over the administration of the parish between 1970 and 1975 and Father Stephen Adrian started in 1975. Father Adrian had been one of the first Roman Catholic priests to run for state political office in the history of Minnesota. His stand against legalized abortion epitomized in many ways the feelings of the people of Incarnation community and their willingness to take a stand against issues that they felt were socially and morally

In 1978 Father Robert Monaghan became pastor of Incarnation. Father Monaghan was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska and was previously pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in St. Paul. Father Monaghan brought to Incarnation not only much needed spiritual leadership as did his predecessors, but also a strong background in administration. This would prove to be invaluable in the difficult economic times that earmarked the late 70's and early 80's.



Many People Make A Community


The history of Incarnation has been blessed with tremendous leadership from Father Cleary to our present pastor, Father Monaghan. But it has been the individual people and the organizations which have served Incarnation that have and will continue to make it a vibrant parish. In October of 1909 a group of women met in the Masonic Hall on First Avenue to form a club. The purpose of the club was to aid Father Cleary and the name of the group was the Willing Workers. The first president was Mrs. J. M. McLaughlin. When the Willing Workers first organized, the Incarnation Institute was being built and
soon after work was begun on the church and rectory. To help defray the debt, many of the club's first activities were fundraisers.  They published "The Tried and True Cookbook" which was a large financial success. Once a year the men and women staged a bazaar. The revenue from all of these enterprises was applied to the debt and also to the needs of the school. After 10 successful years the organization disbanded. Sometime later, Mrs. B. W. Japs suggested that a new club be formed and theIncarnation Mother's Club was organized. Their principal aim was to meet the growing needs of the school. Helping to equip the school rooms and supplying the kitchen were several of the initial projects. In 1929, the name of the club was changed to the Incarnation Women's Club, so as to include more women of the parish. The two main objectives were to promote the welfare of the school and in every respect possible to cooperate with the pastor and sisters in developing the best interests of the children of the parish. And secondly, to strengthen the bonds of friendship and Christianity among the members of the organization, particularly those who have no obligations of interest in the school. The teachers, pupils, and people of Incarnation owe a debt of gratitude to the Incarnation Women's Club for the many years of service, giving, and love that they have provided to the Incarnation Community.

On October 10, 1909 Father Cleary held a meeting of the men in the parish to discuss the future expansion of the Incarnation community. This was the first meeting of the Incarnation Men's Club. On October 17, 1909 D. W. Woolsey was elected as president of the club. Father Cleary developed a strong association with the Men's Club and encouraged its growth in the community. Over the years he was its best recruiter as he impressed upon all the young men moving into the parish the importance of it. Father Cleary turned to the Men's Club for much of the fundraising for the construction of the early buildings. Several of their fundraising efforts took the form of pledge drives, stag parties, card parties, and the annual bazaar which they coordinated with the Women's Club. The men took a lot of pride in the fact that the early buildings that were constructed were primarily debt free within a very short period from the time of their completion. Over the years they have continued to play an important role in the maintenance of the buildings. Much of their fundraisings have gone for the school and presently they are active in the administration of the athletics of the children at Incarnation.


Often times in a family in the parish, the man of the house was active in the Men's Club while the woman of the house was active in the Women's Club. These two organizations should be commended for their longevity of service to all of us at Incarnation. Many other community organizations played important roles in the growth and development of Incarnation parish. They were: The Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary begun in 1910, The Altar Society also begun in 1919, Boy and Girl Scout troops begun in 1926, Holy Name Society begun in 1920, Fratamor, Legion of Mary, United Singles, Cana Couples, Widows and Widowers, Study Club, and The Mother Singers. In 1964, the first Oktoberfest was held; previously the major social event fundraiser was the St. Nicholas party. The Oktoberfest has played an important part in all the lives of the people of the Incarnation whether as organizers of the weekend event or just as participants enjoying the festivities. The Oktoberfest is an opportunity to renew old acquaintances, have a good time, and raise much needed funds for our parish.


An organized structure for Incarnation's network of committees and clubs has evolved in the last twenty years. With the pastor at the head and the Parish Council directly beneath the pastor, the following committees are directly responsible to the Parish Council: Finance/Budget, Liturgy, Social Concerns, Maintenance, Religious Ed/Adult Enrichment, Long Range Planning, and Shared Ministry. Those organizations which are directly responsible to the pastor are: Men's Club, Women's Club, School Board, Home and School Association and Oktoberfest Committee. 


Many things have changed in the Incarnation Community over the years. Cleary Hall is now being leased to a Montessori school and the convent is being leased as the Incarnation House. But changes have been a part of the community for many years. Change is good; it allows growth and development in the community. Incarnation Parish is a people brought together by a common faith. Through the working of the spirit in our midst, we strive to make the
response to this faith increasingly true and obvious. 


The Church of the Incarnation is no longer a "Cathedral of the Cornfields". Yet it still rises above the changing city, standing as a reminder of humankind's reconciliation and redemption. At the moment of the Incarnation, the Lord began his journey to his death and resurrection, opening wide the gates of heaven and welcoming all people unto himself. The Church of the Incarnation has a heritage and a tradition of hospitality. During this Diamond Jubilee
year, as in every year, all peoples are welcome.

Respectfully submitted to the people of the Incarnation Community,
Matthew J. Rieger