The first European settlement in what is now St. Joseph began in 1826 with a trading post in the Blacksnake Hills, operated by the French fur trader Joseph Robidoux. In 1838 the Jesuit missionary and explorer Fr. Peter John DeSmet visited the trading post on his way up the Missouri River.
De Smet wrote that he “had a long talk with Joseph Robidoux… He …expressed a wish to build a little chapel there…” That same year another Jesuit missionary celebrated Mass for the first time in Robidoux’s log house. Jesuit missionaries to the Indian tribes across the Missouri River paid frequent visits to this area between 1838 and 1845 to minister to the Catholics. As the trading post at Robidoux’s Landing grew, Robidoux filed a town plat in 1843, naming the town St. Joseph in honor of his patron saint.
The first resident pastor in St. Joseph, a newly-ordained Irishman, Fr. Thomas Scanlan, arrived in the city on October 15, 1845. Within a few months, he planned and began the erection of a church at the northeast corner of 5th and Felix Streets, a brick structure 40’ by 20’; it was dedicated by Bishop Kenrick of St. Louis on June 17, 1847, receiving the name of St. Joseph’s Church. There were 20 families in the parish at its beginning.
At the invitation of Fr. Scanlan, the Religous of the Sacred Heart and the Christian Brothers came to town in the 1850s to educate the young women and men. Fr. Scanlan undertook a missionary trip to Illinois in 1860, where, soon after his arrival, he was stricken with a fatal illness. His remains were returned to St. Joseph, and he is now buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery.
Fr. John Hennessy was the next pastor until he was appointed Bishop of Dubuque in 1866. He was replaced by his assistant, Father James Doherty.
Bishop John J. Hogan was named as the first Bishop of the newly erected Diocese of St. Joseph in September 1868, and St. Joseph’s Church now became the cathedral of the new diocese. In the following year, Bishop Hogan purchased a site at the corner of 10th and Isadore Streets and began the erection of the present Cathedral. The cornerstone was laid on September 12, 1869, and the first Mass was celebrated on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1871. The original St. Joseph’s Church was razed during the succeeding decade, the site was sold, and the money used toward the cost of the new Cathedral.
The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul arrived in 1869. For a time they operated both a hospital and a school, then a school only, and from 1891 St. Joseph’s Hospital at 10th and Powell Streets. In the 1980s the Daughters of Charity left as the hospital underwent a merger and the building was vacated and later razed.
In the fall of 1876, Fr. Ignatius Conrad, O.S.B., was appointed pastor of the Cathedral. This able and zealous priest was widely known for his untiring labor, in both the spiritual and material growth of the parish. In May 1891, he was made Abbot of the Benedictine Abbey in Subiaco, Arkansas. He was succeeded by the popular and energetic Father Andrew Newman, who spent nineteen years in the Cathedral Parish.
The rectory was built in 1883. Prior to that time, the priests resided in apartments above the east end of the church building. The rectory also served as the chancery office for the diocese. In 2006-07 it was completely renovated for the first time in its history.
In 1880, Bishop Hogan was named bishop of the new Diocese of Kansas City but continued as administrator of the Diocese of St. Joseph until 1893. He was succeeded by Maurice F. Burke, D.D., who was transferred from the Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyoming. He oversaw an extensive renovation of the Cathedral in 1900, completing the original plan by erecting the towers and building the stone portico entrance. The Religious of the Sacred Heart opened the Cathedral Parochial School in 1901 and continued to conduct it until 1920, when they were succeeded by the Benedictine Sisters of Mt. St. Scholastica. After 1911 he purchased an Episcopal residence at the corner of 7th and Hall. This residence was later occupied by Bishop LeBlond.
When Bishop Burke’s health failed, Francis Gilfillan, rector of the Cathedral of St. Louis, was appointed as coadjutor bishop with the right of succession. On March 17, 1923, Bishop Burke died and Bishop Gilfillan became the third Bishop of St. Joseph. His interest in the welfare of children led to the opening of the old Tootle home at 36th and Frederick as an orphanage, and to the construction of Christian Brothers High School (the present-day Bode Middle School). Bishop Gilfillan preferred to live with his priests and resided at the Cathedral rectory. He died on January 13, 1933.
In 1924, newly-ordained Fr. Leo Ruggle was assigned to the Cathedral. In 1984 Msgr. Ruggle died at the age of 85, having spent his entire priestly career in this parish, as assistant, then pastor (1937-1964), then pastor emeritus. He served as diocesan chancellor (1926-1936) and was apostolic administrator of the diocese (1961-62) in the interval between Bishops Cody and Helmsing. He was much loved as a wise confessor and counselor. The year before he died, the renovated church basement was named Ruggle Hall in his honor.
On July 21, 1933, Charles Hubert LeBlond of Cleveland, Ohio, was appointed as the fourth Bishop of St. Joseph. He took an immediate interest in welfare work in the city, and was extremely active in the annual Community Chest campaigns. Under his leadership, the Catholic population of the Diocese increased by more than 3000, and the number of priests rose 30%. He resigned on August 24, 1956, and died on December 30, 1958. Bishop LeBlond High School stands as a memorial to the great work accomplished by this great man.
On August 29, 1956, the western portion of the Diocese of St. Joseph and the Diocese of Kansas City were consolidated. Since that time the Bishops of Kansas City-St. Joseph have resided in Kansas City, and our church became a Cathedral, but most St. Joseph people still refer to it as “Co-Cathedral.” The building has undergone several changes since. The west entrance was enclosed in 1959. The sanctuary was remodeled in 1969-70 according to the reformed liturgy. Further modifications occurred in 1981, 1995, and 2014.
In 1958 a gymnasium-auditorium was built across Isadore Street and later named in honor of Msgr. Charles Nowland.
Cathedral School gradually changed from a faculty of all religious sisters to all lay women and men by the late 1980s. It was remodeled and modernized in 1954. A preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds was added in 1981. Its centennial in 2000-01 was a year-long celebration of its lasting impact on the parish and city.
The former sisters’ convent was converted to a daycare center in the 1980s, now the Cathedral Early Childhood Center.
In the 1980s the parish opened a food pantry, operating out of the rectory basement three days a week. It has become one of our most important outreach programs.
The Cathedral Church, School, and Early Childhood Center adopted a single logo in 2014, with the text "Cathedral St. Joseph, Faith Family Fellowship".
Cathedral Parish has seen a lot since its modest beginning at 5th and Felix Streets in 1845. Bishops and pastors, religious sisters and dedicated lay people, rich and poor, young and old, saints and sinners, have come and gone, and yet we stand today as we did in 1871, on the summit of Cathedral Hill, a vital presence to the needy of our neighborhood and city, a witness to the love of God Incarnate in Jesus Christ, Yesterday, Today, and Forever. Ad multos annos!
Compiled from numerous sources – commemorative booklets, personal recollections, published histories – by Tom Smith, Cathedral Director of Music and Liturgy, 1978-2015.
Pastors of St. Joseph Parish
1845 Rev. Thomas Scanlan
1860 Rev. John Hennessy
1866 Rev. James Doherty
Rectors of St. Joseph Cathedral
1868 Most. Rev. John J. Hogan, D.D.
1876 Rev. Ignatius Conrad, O.S.B.
1892 Rev. Andrew Newman
1893 Most. Rev. M. F. Burke, D.D.
1913 Rev. John J. O’Neill
1923 Rev. Maurice F. Connor
1926 Rev. Charles F. Buddy
1937 Msgr. Leo J. Ruggle
Pastors of St. Joseph Cathedral
1956 Msgr. Leo J. Ruggle
1964 Msgr. Charles S. Nowland
1973 Msgr. Robert J. Hogan
1979 Rev. Gerald R. Waris
1986 Rev. Patrick Tobin
1988 Rev. Thomas J. D. Hawkins
1995 Rev. Wayne L. Walter
1996 Msgr. Richard M. Dierkes
2008 Rev. Joseph B. Powers
2013 Rev. J. Matthew Rotert
2018 Rev. Stephen Hansen