Parish History: St. Theresa of Avila

A history of Saint Theresa parish must begin with the history of Salem and Marion County, for this parish has always been an integral part of the community.

     Salem is the seat of Marion County government, having been established on January 24, 1823, by an act of the Illinois legislature.  Prior to that date, this territory belonged to Jefferson and Fayette counties.  The early history of Salem coincides with that of all the Midwest.  Great tribes of native peoples roamed here before Spanish and French explorers charted the land for later pioneers.  The early explorers not only brought European customs to the area, they also brought the Christian faith.

    The area around Salem played a prominent role in the opening of the entire Midwest region. Because of its location on the main trail between St. Louis and Vincennes, it was host to many of the great events of early American history. George Rogers Clark was a frequent visitor in his campaigns from Vincennes to Kaskaskia. Abraham Lincoln knew it from his visits to the now historic Half-way House several miles east of Salem. And of course Salem is the birthplace of William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic presidential candidate and US Secretary of State.

     The building of the Mississippi and Ohio Railroad (later named the B & O) from the East through Salem on its way to St. Louis  brought the first Catholic settlers into the area.  The first round trip from Cincinnati to St. Louis, through Salem, occurred between 1850 and 1855.  Most of the original Catholics did not settle here but moved on to St. Louis, seeking newer and better livelihoods.  Those who remained attended Mass at St. John the Baptist and St. Matthew Apostle parishes in Odin.

     It was not until 1868 that the first church was erected on South Washington Street.  A frame structure (above left), large enough to accommodate the eight Catholic families who made up the parish at its beginning, was dedicated.  For the first thirty-five years, parishioners were served by priests from Fayetteville (1872 to 1876), Centralia (1876 to 1878), and Flora (1876 to 1907).  Priests from Sandoval served the parish from 1907 to 1922.  In 1922, the church was practically rebuilt.  The old structure served as a foundation for a beautiful stucco finish, two wings were added and the interior remodeled, repainted and redecorated.  Centralia pastors again took responsibility for St. Theresa parish from 1922 to 1940.  And in 1940, St. Theresa parish received its first resident pastor, Fr.  A.B.  Schomaker.

     Although Salem and Marion County have always relied heavily on agriculture, the 1930s saw a tremendous change with the commercial production of oil, which helped to transform a small town into the many-faceted community it is today.  A highway between Kinmundy and Salem was completed in 1930, allowing the two parishes to have Mass every Sunday.

In 1935, the first vacation school was held in Salem with the assistance of the Poor Handmaids from Centralia.  This was repeated in 1937.  In 1940, the Felician Sisters replaced the Poor Handmaids at Centralia and took charge of catechetics in Salem.

     On April 26, 1940, a giant step forward was taken by the parish.  Final plans were made for construction of the present church on the corner of West Main and Ohio streets.  The cost of construction was $28,000, with another $12,000 for decorating the rectory and the church.

     In 1954, plans were initiated for the construction of a parish school and convent.  Under the guidance of Father Schomaker and with generous support from members of the parish, these plans materialized with the dedication of the school and convent in 1955.  The first enrollment numbered 88 and eventually surpassed l00 students.  It has been staffed by sisters from a number of different religious communities, including the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, the Felicians, and the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

     In 1965, increased enrollment demanded the addition of a fourth classroom to the school.  In 1967, plans were begun to renovate the church to accommodate the liturgical changes instituted after the Second Vatican Council.  And in 1968, with 104 registered families, St. Theresa Parish celebrated its 100th anniversary.

     30 years later, a parish center and gymnasium, a beautiful rectory, and a newly-remodeled parish office and meeting house complete the complex of buildings.  The parish has grown to nearly 300 families.  Busy organizations help to ensure the continued financial viability of the parish and school.  Increased lay-participation at every level of decision making and ministry keep the faith alive and active.  St. Theresa has been, and will continue to be a vital part of the larger Salem Community.

     St. Theresa has and will continue to be a vital part of the Diocese of Belleville and Salem, Illinois.  The Church will be alive and well if we, the People of God, are alive in the Lord and seek to do His will and work. 


May God bless us in Love.