In 1843 the first Catholics arrived in this area – a few Irish families from Maryland who settled in the township of Bertram and between Lisbon and Mechanicsville. At the outset they were without the services of a priest. But the Divine Spirit kept their faith alive, and in 1845 these loyal few were rewarded by priestly services from Iowa City. However, because of the distances and traveling conditions of those days, these services were sporadic. This inconsistent contact with their priest and the Sacraments discouraged those in the Bertram area, and they left. Not so with the Irish immigrants who had settled east of Mount Vernon. They persevered and became the core of our present family of God of St. John’s.
In that era, few places in Iowa were fortunate enough to boast of a Catholic church. These hardy pioneers. through prayer and sacrifice, were able to purchase property in Lisbon in 1859. That same year they proceeded to build their original church, which they dedicated to St. John the Baptist. This church, no larger than a one-room schoolhouse, was most precious to these devoted early settlers. However, even then it remained a mission church of Iowa City. Not until eight years later did Father Clement Lowrey from Cedar Rapids regularly serve St. John’s Church. Father Lowrey’s task was not easy. Besides the church in Lisbon, Father also served the people of Bertram, Solon, Clarence, Stone City, Anamosa, Fairfax, Norway, Marengo, Belle Plaine, and Marshalltown.
In 1872, Father William Downey took residence in Lisbon’s Brockham Hotel. But his stay was short. Before the year’s end, the Lisbonites were called to make another sacrifice so Father could live in a house purchased for him in Mechanicsville. Father continued his apostolate with his people in Lisbon. but had added services to Catholics in Tipton and Mechanicsville.
Southeast Linn County continued to be served by the priest residing in Mechanicsville until Marion pastors assumed that responsibility in 1891. At this time, only 10 families worshipped, as members of the Diocese of Davenport, at the Mechanicsville mission church of Lisbon. More often, however, Catholic families affiliated with the Mechanicsville parish because St. Mary’s Church had the resident pastor.
From 1891 until 1921, Lisbon area Catholics were provided with monthly mass by pastors of Marion, now in the Archdiocese of Dubuque. It was during this time, by 1905, that the Irish were joined by 40 Bohemian families who established log dwellings mainly along the Cedar River to the south. In the fall of 1921, Father Henry Manternach became the first resident pastor of the delighted few and poor of Lisbon and Mount Vernon. Money was scarce and the appreciative people held many picnics and special events to support their long-awaited shepherd. The parish grew so in numbers and community spirit that it was necessary by 1927 to lengthen the Church by 50 feet to provide a seating capacity of 200. This called for more sacrifices. They needed a then considerable sum of $16,000 for this addition. Not only was this need met, but also approximately half of the families contributed money over and above for the purchase of a new brass bell installed the same year. This very bell continues to call us to prayer in the bell tower of St. John the Baptist church in Mount Vernon.
Resident pastors continued to serve St. John’s during the depression years. For five of those years, however, only a weekend ministry was available as the pastor, Father George Stemm, was doing postgraduate work at the University of Iowa and subsequently commuting to his teaching position at Loras College in Dubuque.
A special campaign for a Parish Improvement Fund was begun during the prosperous times immediately following World War II. Father J.R. Goodman was pastor at this time. This humble fund of nearly $15,000, contributed to by 90 parishioners, can be identified as the seed from which blossomed the all-out effort in 1966 to rebuild St. John’s on its present site, given to St. John’s by the Joseph Verba family. Again the Lisbonites made a sacrifice, for the land donated for the church was in their sister town of Mount Vernon. They again responded generously. Together with their sister community, they united to bring about another truly great achievement. On December 1, 1968, 189 families and registered adults witnessed the completion and blessing of the present rectory, educational building and church basement by Archbishop James J. Byrne during the pastorate of Father William Kunsch.
From 1972 to 1977, with Father Robert L. Ferring as its pastor, the parish roll had grown from 175 registered parishioners to 271, and the religious educational program had expanded from 196 children to 330.
The decision to move ahead with the completion of the church superstructure was initiated by the Parish Council in May of 1975. The Council selected a Building Committee comprised of 17 men and women. To them was assigned the task of studying the feasibility of completing the structure. By September of 1975, with the encouragement and blessing of the Council and Building Committee, a sub-committee of the latter discussed with Archbishop Byrne their conviction that St. John’s could raise sufficient funds to build and finance the superstructure providing he would approve an additional indebtedness of between $100,000 and $125,000. The Archbishop gave his approval on condition that this sum could be raised with a special financial “pledge” campaign.
The Building Committee reported back to the Parish Council and received the additional commission to move ahead with planning. Open meetings were held with the parishioners. Explanations of the possibility of the venture were given, architectural sketches of the proposed new church were made available and a further explanation of the financial status of the parish, including its current indebtedness, was reviewed. Again these same people of God had to make a decision. Like their forefathers, disregarding the personal sacrifice involved, they came through. Eighty-seven percent of the adults who voted by secret ballot favored the attempt being made to raise the prescribed sum, through voluntary and secret “sacrificial offerings.”
The results were remarkable. More than 99% actually “pledged” to the endeavor, and in May of 1977 the completion of God’s new house was realized.
During the 1990’s resident priests at St. John’s were given the additional responsibility of saying mass at St. Patrick’s Church in Anamosa and then later at St. Isidore’s Church in Springville.
In 2001, pastor Father James Duster, passed away while on vacation. It was the start of a transitional period. Due to the shrinking number of active priests in the Archdiocese, no resident priest was assigned to St. John’s. Without a resident priest, Archbishop Jerome Hanus commissioned a lay person, Sue Schettler, to serve as Parish Life Coordinator of the parish. Retired Pastor Father Phil Schmidt provided priestly service to the parish until Father David Ambrosy was assigned to serve both St. John’s in Mount Vernon and St. Isidore’s in Springville. He was followed by several sacramental priests who shared duties for multiple parishes over several years. In 2019, Sue Schettler retired and the parish welcomed a full-time priest-pastor, Rev. Andrew Awotwe-Mensah, who serves both St. John and St. Isidore parishes.
The parish has grown to more than 395 families, which includes more than 1000 souls.
The Church has been blessed with the following priests:
- Father Phillip Laurent (1856-1858)
- Father William Emonds (1858-1868)
- Father Clement Lowrey (1868-1872)
- Father William Downey (1872-1874)
- Father Peter Daley (1877 -1887)
- Father James Kissane (1888-1891)
- Father Thomas Laffan (1891-1896)
- Father John Hartigan (1896-1904)
- Father Patrick Loughnane (1904-1915)
- Father John Murtagh (1915-1916)
- Father William Nuebel (1916-1918)
- Father Maurice O’Callahan (1918-1920)
- Father Nicholas Keffeler (1920-1921)
- Father H. N. Manternach (1921-1931)
- Father Raymond Duffy (1931-1933)
- Father William McNamee (1933-1935)
- Father George Stemm (1935-1940)
- Father Leroy Ehzler (1940-1941)
- Father J. Raphael Goodman (1941-1951)
- Father Leo O’Connell (1951-1953)
- Father Robert McDonald (1953-1955)
- Father A. D. Gibbs (1955-1966)
- Father William Kunsch (1966-1972)
- Father Allen Kurt (1967-1972)
- Father Robert Ferring (1972-1978)
- Father John G. Barnes (1978-1983)
- Father Irwin Matt (1983-1987)
- Father Louis Zee (1987-1994)
- Father James Duster (1994-2001)
- Father David Ambrosy (2002-2006)
- Father Jim Brokman (2006-2008 )
- Fathers John Gossman and Rodney Allers (2008-2011)
- Fathers John Gossman and Anthony Kruse (2011-2012)
- Father John “Jack” R. Flaherty (2012-2019 )
- Father Andrew Awotwe-Mensah (July, 2019 – )