Settlement in the Kearney area began in the 1830s as a stopping point on the Oregon Trail. Fort Kearny was established in 1948, and with the Union Pacific Railroad’s completion at Kearney in 1869, Kearney was founded April 11, 1871. The Burlington Railroad was completed to Kearney in 1872 and Kearney was incorporated in 1873.
The first settlers in the region and early Catholic families made their living by farming, working in the cotton mill or on the railroad. The Catholic life was difficult because there were few priests and established parishes in easy travel distance. Months or even years would pass without the opportunity to celebrate Mass or receive communion. But with the arrival of the railroads, Mass was offered in Kearney fairly regularly, in an old printing shop and then in a hall over a lumber shop on Central Avenue just south of the railroad tracks. Before a parish was established, priests came from Omaha, Grand Island and Columbus.
On June 1, 1881 Bishop James O’Connor purchased property in south Kearney, on the east side of Avenue A between 18th and 19th streets. That same year Father P.J. Boyle was appointed the first resident pastor for Kearney. He built the first rectory in 1883 and the first church was built around that time. In 1885 Father Nicholas Stoltz arrived as pastor. From its beginning as a mission parish, soon the parish extended to all of Buffalo County and parts of Dawson and Custer counties.
In 1884 property was purchased at 26th Street and Sixth Avenue and work was begun on a new church under Father Hork. Lumber from the old church was recycled to build this new church and a nearby rectory. Times were difficult financially in the 1880s past the turn of the century but a vision for a beautiful and permanent St. James church remained in the pastors’ and parishioners’ prayers. In 1905 Father F.J. McCarthy purchased a Presbyterian church on the northwest corner of First Avenue and 24th Street, and in 1909 Father Michael Daly planned to build a new church – large enough for 500 people, and of a grand Romanesque design. When that church was completed in 1911, Father Henry Muensterman was pastor.
In 1912 a diocese was created for northwestern Nebraska and Kearney was chosen as the See City and residence of the bishop, and Rev. James A. Duffy became the first Bishop of Kearney. He was installed in the Cathedral in Kearney on April 24, 1913. In December 1914 three lots on the southwest corner of 25th Street and Second Avenue and plans were made for a school, which was dedicated in September 1915. The school was operated by the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine.
Kearney remained the See of the Diocese until 1917 when Bishop Duffy moved it to Grand Island, which had a larger community of Catholics.
In 1924 the Sisters of St. Francis of Lafayette, Ind., built the Good Samaritan Hospital, and in 1929 a Carmelite home for the aged was established from a former apartment building.
During the 1930s-1950s the Catholic community continued to grow and in 1957 Father Raymond Miles purchased 60 acres at 35th Street and Avenue A for Kearney’s first Catholic high school, and the church and existing school were remodeled, and a convent was developed for the school’s Dominican sisters at 24th Street and Second Avenue. In 1961 the high school construction began: seventh through 10thgrades, with the intention of adding a grade each year as the highest class neared graduation. Kearney Catholic High School was dedicated Oct. 18, 1861.
The downtown St. James began to be outgrown in pew space and in parking as the Kearney Catholic community continued to grow. In 1977 plans to build materialized. Two sites were under consideration by the planning and building committee: 46th Street and Avenue C, and 3801 Ave. A, just north of Kearney Catholic. Plans for the new church came to some $750,000, not including carpet, sound, pews, the organ, windows or the parking lot; and a fund-raising drive commenced for $600,000. The former church and school was sold for $300,000, and another $100,000 from the sale of church and school artifacts, and $640,000 was pledged during the capital campaign. Additional donations funded the carpet, sound, organ and other interior items needed for the New St. James.
Ground was broken on June 11, 1979 and on July 25, 1980 the new St. James was dedicated after a walking procession of the tabernacle, bell, other religious articles and parishioners from the old to the new St. James, followed by a dinner on the football field at Kearney Catholic. In 1984 a new bell tower was dedicated as a project of the Knights of Columbus Council 1828.
In 1986 Bishop McNamara created a new parish in Kearney, south of 25th Street, and Prince of Peace parish was born with 375 families and pastor Father Jack Schlaf.
In 1985, the 25th anniversary of Kearney Catholic, a development campaign was conducted to assure the continuation and improvements to Kearney Catholic High School. A permanent endowment of $500,000 was raised. In 1995 a major addition project was completed at the church: a social hall and nursery.
- Compiled from writings by Father John F. Scott, 1962; Anne Elliott, 1979;
Read about the most recent facility renovations.