St. Mary’s roots can be traced back to the 1850s, when German pioneers with a strong Catholic faith and surnames like Fox, Doffing, Kranz and Gores settled in the area. In 1856, the first three local baptisms were performed in a log home owned by John J. Fox, which was located about 1.5 miles west of New Trier.
That same year, 1856, the faith-filled Catholics built their first church, a small log building that was probably constructed on Mary Hill, where they also established St. Mary’s Cemetery. They named their parish after St. Mary Protectress, or Schutz, in German. During this same period, immigrants from Luxembourg, with surnames like Siebenaler, Lorentz, Schweich and Feidt, moved to the area and joined the parish. When it came time to vote on a town name, Germans outnumbered Luxembourgers, so, not surprisingly, the town was named New Trier, after Trier, Germany.
The parish grew so fast that within two to three years a larger frame church was built. But as the parish continued to grow, the frame church became too small and, in 1864, parishioners built a rather large stone church that faced to the west, toward the cemetery. Old photos show that the small frame church was later attached to the southeast corner of the stone church and the combined structure accommodated the ever-growing parish for 45 years.
In 1909, the present red-and-white brick church was erected. Its elegant style is of pure Renaissance, or Beaux Artes, architecture. The architect was George Ries of St. Paul, who also designed the church of St. Agnes in St. Paul. The contractor was Henry E. Lange. The white oak of the altar, the side altars and Communion railing were the work of E. Hackner of La Crosse, Wis. The high altar candlesticks are of solid brass and onyx. The near life-size Stations of the Cross were by The Frederick European Hotel of St. Paul, Fred H. Snyder, proprietor. The beautiful stained glass windows were from Pittsburgh Glass of Minneapolis.
Several historical articles can be found in the present church building. For instance, the Our Lady and Child Statue in the church tower dates back to 1862. Legend has it that a log from the 1870 Parish Mission is located somewhere in the church. Other religious antiques of note are the bells and baptismal font from the 1864 church, as well as the cornerstone from the 1864 church, which can be seen overhead in the vestibule.
Catholic schooling was of paramount importance to these deeply faithful Catholics. The first school was probably the abandoned log church. Around 1869, the first school was built near the present school. It was later moved about a block down to become the Joe Vogel home. The present brick school was built in 1900. Benedictine sisters from St. Benedicts in St. Joseph, Minn., taught at the school from the 1860s to 1878, when the School Sisters of Notre Dame came in and did a marvelous job educating St. Mary’s students for nearly 100 years, from 1879 to 1970. Sadly, the school was closed in 2009. During its vibrant lifetime, St. Mary’s School inspired an unusually large number of religious vocations, including 18 priests, 40 sisters and several religious brothers.
During their many years of devoted teaching, the sisters lived in mainly two convents. The first was built in 1870 and then enlarged in 1900 to accommodate boarders from the country. It was torn down in 1950 and the present convent was built. Today, it serves as a private residence.
For more than 160 years, St. Mary’s, sitting majestically on the hill overlooking the city, has been a beacon of faith in the New Trier community. Over the years, generations of family members have gathered under its roof to celebrate Masses, baptisms, first communions, confirmations, marriages and funerals. While the parish’s march through history has not always been smooth, its commitment to the church and its faith in God have never wavered. While predicting the future is particularly challenging in this rapidly changing world, St. Mary’s is poised to thrive for years to come.