More on Fr. Lucien Galtier, and the History of our Parish

When I wrote last week, an historic meeting of deacons, priests, and bishops was about to take place here in our own parish. The meeting on Wednesday, October 30 was a panel discussion that enabled us to raise our concerns about the way that immoral and illegal actions by priests have been handled by the leadership of our local church. Virtually everything remained respectful, but it was a tense two hours of questions and answers. As I mentioned at some of the Masses last week, it needed to happen and was very helpful. I am grateful for the prayers some of you directed to God for us. It really could not have gone better. And now we can make the slow climb toward healing. I hope we have already begun to make progress.

I would like to continue my reflections on our parish’s founding pastor, Fr. Lucien Galtier. Marianne Luban’s well researched biography entitled Lucien Galtier: Pioneer Priest has prompted me to reflect on the experience of the earliest Catholics of our parish when this region was a wilderness. But the story of the founding of our parish is tied to the founding of what is now an archdiocese in Iowa.

The Diocese of Dubuque was created on July 28, 1837 to serve the Catholics of what would soon become Iowa Territory, including not only what is now the state of Iowa, but all of the land between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in what is now Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. The priest Mathias Loras, who had gone from France to Mobile, Alabama a few years earlier, was appointed Bishop of Dubuque on the day the diocese was established, but it was not until December 10, 1837, in Mobile, that Fr. Loras was ordained a bishop. He then traveled to France to recruit men to serve as priests, bringing two priests and four seminarians who were subdeacons. The future Bishop Joseph Cretin (the first Bishop of St. Paul) was one of the priests, and the future Fr. Lucien Galtier (our first pastor) and Fr. Augustin Ravoux (our second pastor) were two of the subdeacons. Bishop Loras did not reach Dubuque until April 1839. Later the same year, the new bishop ventured up the Mississippi River, reaching its juncture with the Minnesota River. He found Catholic families living here in Mendota (in Iowa Territory), just across the valley from Fort Snelling (in Wisconsin Territory). Bishop Loras promised those Catholic settlers that he would send them a priest.

Meanwhile, the seminarians whose education in France had been interrupted by their sea voyage continued their studies at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Lucien Galtier was ordained in January 1840, and began serving in Dubuque. He and his bishop apparently did not enjoy a warm relationship, and when a riverboat arrived in Dubuque that same spring, Bishop Loras surprised Fr. Galtier by telling him that he needed to take the boat that very day to Mendota, to begin a new parish.

Fr. Galtier arrived in Mendota with nothing except $100 from Bishop Loras, and a few liturgical vestments and vessels. He stayed at the home of a Fort Snelling official named Scott Campbell, who was married and had seven children. That arrangement lasted only a month, and Fr. Galtier found other lodging in Mendota. In August 1840 the priest became seriously ill and nearly died; he recovered his health across the river at Fort Snelling. When he returned to Mendota he stayed in a simple log house that also served as the first church. Fr. Ravoux joined him for a time, and was taking care of the parish while Fr. Galtier was away one night in June or July 1842 when he awakened to the sound of cracking. The heavy bark and earth roof collapsed shortly after Fr. Ravoux made his escape. And so the first Church of St. Peter was built; it was completed on October 2, 1842.

Fr. Galtier is also responsible for the construction of a chapel dedicated to St. Paul in a place that had been known at Pig’s Eye Landing, but which is now downtown St. Paul. Fr. Galtier celebrated Mass at the settlement that changed its name to St. Paul as well as in Mendota. It was that same log Chapel of St. Paul that became a cathedral in 1851 when Bishop Joseph Cretin arrived and took possession of it.

Life in Mendota was not easy for Fr. Galtier, and in 1844 Bishop Loras moved him to Keokuk, Iowa. Fr. Galtier found matters there even more difficult, and was constantly short of funds. After only a short time he left the Diocese of Dubuque and went to France. Joseph Cretin, the future bishop, met Fr. Galtier in the city of Lyons in January 1847; he was the spiritual director to a monastery of sisters there. But a great change was in store for him. By June of that same year he had joined the Diocese of Milwaukee and had arrived at what would be his last assignment: St. Gabriel’s Parish in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. It was a great coincidence that he ended up so close to Dubuque after having traveled so far to escape it.

Marianne Luban’s biography of Fr. Galtier offers us a moving detail about the last chapter of the priest’s life. The sacramental register of St. Gabriel’s Parish shows entry after entry in Fr. Galtier’s handwriting. He buried a man named Michael Dignan on February 2, 1866; that entry is signed “L. Galtier.” The next entry is signed by another priest, who wrote, “On the 25th of February A.D. 1866 I have buried the V.R. Father L. Galtier…” Nothing else is known about how Fr. Galtier died. I pray he found happiness in the presence of God after such labors in the mission fields of Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin.

2 Responses to “More on Fr. Lucien Galtier, and the History of our Parish”

  1. Dear Fr.Galatin–Possibly you read the first version of “Lucien Galtier-Pioneer Priest” but there is a second edition with new and revised information. I think now that Father Galtier was never a chaplain in a monastery for nuns at Lyons. It turns out this was a different priest named Galtier, even though Lucien Galtier did tell Bishop Loras that he was thinking of serving in a convent. There is now no information about what he did while in France before returning to America in November of 1846. On the other hand, due to having discovered some documents, I now know quite a lot about the death of Father Galtier in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. All that can be found in the second edition of my book. I am also quite certain that I have discovered the diary of the priest [or what is left of it] the details of which can be seen on my blog, for which I have given the URL.

    • Fr. Joseph Gallatin says:

      How wonderful that you found my article! Someone was kind enough to give me a copy of the first edition; I will look for the second edition. Thank you for your research!

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