The beautiful Lake of the Ozarks is a boater’s paradise, offering exciting events, water sports, great fishing, restaurants on the water's edge and a plethora of entertainment venues. Many have discovered too, that besides being a popular water destination, the surrounding Ozark hills offer hundreds of hiking trails for exercise and breathtaking views that transports hikers to scenic bluffs, beautiful forests, caves and pristine rivers. Far fewer have discovered the rich history embedded in these Ozark hills: a history that requires curiosity, a willingness to get off the beaten path, and an idea of where to look.  

One hidden gem is The Old St. Patrick’s Church, nestled on a back road on the Lake's "Westside," in Laurie, Mo. The church, founded in 1868, is the oldest church in Morgan, Miller and Camden Counties.

Former Shrine of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church Priest Father Barnett, a champion of the old church, lovingly referred to it as the “Little Cathedral of the Ozarks.”

Ministry to the Osage Nation in 1822 

According to a church brochure, the actual history of the church dates back to 1822 when a group of seven Osage Indian Chieftains rode to Florissant, Mo., to the home of Bishop Louis W.V. DuBourg S.S. of the Louisiana Territory and the Floridas, to request a missionary to visit and minister to their people living in the villages along the waters of the now-named Osage River. 

Father Charles de La Croix, a Belgian Jesuit missionary was the first priest sent to the Osage nation. He was a circuit rider that came by horseback, boat and canoe, or sometimes on foot, on a semi-regular basis. Trappers and traders,  drawn by mining prospects or the fur and timber trades, would come into the village for the month-long gatherings and celebrations when the priest would arrive. 

A Multi-Cultural, Multi-Denominational Effort 

Mr. Thomas Fitzpatrick moved his family from Ireland to Laurie in 1863, and soon returned to his home country to convince several of his neighbors to join him in this American promised-land. They then began plans to build the church on property in Laurie, donated by Mr. Patrick Johnson. Work began in 1868.

The old St. Patrick’s Church was a multi-cultural effort, as it was built by Irish Catholics, a first generation German-American and a Protestant Scotsman. Stone was quarried on a nearby farm and a kiln was erected to burn the limestone necessary for the mortar. Johnson hewed out the pieces of stone and his brother smoothed the rough edges. The stone was hauled to the site, about one-half mile, on a "lizard" (a tree trunk with two forks across to form a platform), by two old plodding oxen. The roof was made of rough shingles split from straight-grained oak trees. The floor was solid earth and the original seats were puncheon (logs split in half with the face hewed smooth and pegs to serve as legs). The church was designed to hold 80 people and was ready for worship by 1870. It was dedicated in 1883. 

The Museum

Small living quarters were added in 1936 for the circuit-riding priests. These quarters have since been turned into a museum that contains many of the vestments, photos and artifacts of the early church. One interesting photo is of Mr. and Mrs. William T. White, the first couple married in the church, in 1913. 

There is also an original “sick box” that the early priests carried with them on visits to the homes of ill parishioners at a time when physicians were scarce. The well-preserved box contains early century articles the priests used for communion with sick parishioners to help them remember the monumental work of Jesus on the Cross. The box, lined with purple, holds a cross, a candle, a Bible, a pewter plate for the communion bread and a bowl for wine, as well as a bottle of anointing oil for anointing the sick. 

Historical Items In Old St. Patrick's Church Museum
Vestments In The Old St. Patrick's Church Museum

National Register of Historic Sites 

The last regular church service in the old church was held on July 20, 1952. By 1956, the building fell into disrepair, and several concerned priests and parish families pulled together to raise funds to repair the neglected sanctuary. Keeping with the design of the original builders, the restoration project preserved the old church's simple, practical and plain character. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Sites on March 2, 1979.

Again in 1997, the time-worn church was on the edge of destruction. This time, heroes were found in the St. Patrick’s Catholic Church Knights of Columbus Council No. 10381. Their restoration project took 1.5 years and involved more than 30 individuals and 1,800 man-hours. The Knights continue to faithfully fund and work on projects at the old church to this day. A new sign was erected a few years ago and fresh carpet was installed, a last wish of a St. Pat’s parishioner. 

Simpler times

A visit to the old church is a peaceful respite from the modern world and affords one the opportunity to step back to a simpler time. The hand hewn rock building boasts an old-fashioned church bell, like the ones that used to ring across the Ozark hills, beckoning the faithful to come to worship. 

Stations of the cross hang on the walls in the old sanctuary, telling the story of Christ’s walk of love in picture form and plain wooden pews face a stark white-alter where a beautiful statue of The Savior is set in the center. 

A resting place

Artfully carved angels keep watch over an old cemetery on the church grounds. The headstones date back to the early 1800’s, telling brief, yet moving, stories of those they memorialize: the twins that perished in infancy during the coldest of winter in 1890, and the testament of the powerful and passionate love of a husband who could not live without his beloved wife of 70 years. He joined her in the grave, a few short months after her passing. Some stones are so old, the dates are illegible. Most are simple and homemade, hewn and dragged up from the quarry down the road.

Everyday people come to the peaceful acres and clean the grave sites, oftentimes stopping to kneel and pray.

Faithful caretakers 

Jerry and Barbara Petersen

St. Patrick’s Church members Jerry and Barbara Petersen have been the faithful caretakers of the old church for 20 years. They visit every week to make sure the beautiful old sanctuary is spotlessly clean inside and out, and from time to time they help facilitate a wedding or a burial on these grounds, full of history.  

A good opportunity to visit the Little Cathedral of the Ozarks is during the Masses celebrated on Memorial Day, Labor Day and All Souls Day. For tour appointments call 573-374-7855.

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