About Us

St. Francis ChurchParish Beginnings

Fr. Francis Benz was appointed founding pastor in 1936 of the parish of Saint Francis of Assisi. The little country church was formed around a few charter families who were charged by Archbishop John Gregory Murray with the task of building for the immediate and future needs of Catholics living in the lower Saint Croix Valley. For these people in the valley, the closest churches were to the south in Hastings, to the west in Lake Elmo and to the north in Stillwater. Fr. Benz wrote in 1936 that, "Catholics residing within the section [south Washington County] have been without a church. Many of them have never attended church services. Others have not seen the inside of a church for fifteen or twenty years. They did not have cars and many still do not possess an automobile. Religious affiliations were soon forgotten and the children grew up as if they lived in darkest Africa. Would you believe that until a year ago (1937) one old lady had never seen a streetcar? And this twenty miles from the St. Paul loop."

Before construction started in 1938, Mass was celebrated in the northern section at the Lakeland Community Hall; for the people in the southern section at an old house in Lake St. Croix Beach, which was formerly owned by 'Cardinal' Dick O'Connor, political boss of St. Paul. In the winter, Mass was celebrated only in the hall because of the lack of heating facilities in O'Connor's house. It was a real primitive gathering according to Fr. Benz who wrote, A table covered with a white sheet served as an altar. A stove far from adequate supplied a little heat. A Mass kit, such as that used by missionaries in foreign lands was unpacked and packed before and after each service. The worshipers knelt on the cold, hard floor. But did these hardships diminish the enthusiasm of the parishioners for a church? Not a bit.

As one charter member of this parish told a later pastor, Fr. Frederick Bartheleme: We worked so hard in every way to build the church and the rectory and to pay off the debt of $25,000.00. Father Benz during the erection of the building lived in his office in downtown Minneapolis. He was the publisher of the magazines 'The Catholic Boy' and "The Catholic Girl.' He also started an organization which has spread throughout the United States known as the 'Knights of the Altar,' an organization for altar boys.

Archbishop Murray laid the cornerstone for the new church of St. Francis on Sunday, December 18th, 1938. As the Stillwater paper wrote: The new church now being erected is situated on a high bank overlooking Lake St. Croix, one of the most picturesque spots in the state. The building is a combination church and rectory and will follow the adobe style of architecture with high walls reminiscent of monastic simplicity surrounding the structure. This type of architecture although unique in the northwest is admirably suited to the surrounding country.

Father Benz had a great love for the mission style seen in Mexico, the southwest and California. That is one reason why St. Francis was built as it was. St. Francis of Assisi became the patron saint of the church because Father Benz' first name was Francis and no other Catholic Church in the Archdiocese had such patronage. Even the Franciscan churches had not been named after that order's founder and, to this day, this church remains the only one in the archdiocese dedicated to the Saint of the Poor, Francis of Assisi.

His Excellency John Gregory Murray dedicated the new church on Sunday, August 13th, 1939. The Stillwater paper wrote, Throughout the afternoon and evening, a celebration will be held in honor of the occasion, consisting of chicken boo-ya and carnival, the St. Agnes Senior and Junior girls drum and bugle corps, the St. Paul Shriners Band, magicians and other attractions will be featured. The St. Thomas choir will sing the Mass.

The parish population grew slowly, but steadily through the years that followed. By 1974, the census of the parish numbered around 250 families. It was during this time when the church was refurbished. A piazza fountain was installed after 13th Street was moved further to the south allowing for the possibility of expansion. With the street moved away from near proximity to the church's front entrance, a portico was added to enhance the main entry. The parish's golden anniversary was a great moment of looking back at the history of the parish and also a glance into the future. By the 1980's the parish family rostrum numbered over 450 and space in the church was at a premium. It was decided then to build a new church while retaining the first church as a chapel.

In 1989, Archbishop John Roach dedicated the church. This serene church took on the austere mission-style of architectural and interior design. Simple white stucco, wood ceilings and decorative beams recall the first church's mission style. The seating capacity of the new church is 450 people while another 200 seats may be added in the adjacent parish hall, which is separated from the church by a glass wall. The simple décor includes religious works and furnishings of local artists. Colored windows recount the Seven Sacraments of the Church and the creation story. Saint Francis graces the south rose window above the principal entrance.

The original church is referred to as a chapel and is used for daily Mass and other liturgies. The narrow stained glass windows of the chapel recount the Prayer of Saint Francis and the history of the saint's life. The rose window shows Christ, the Pantocreator.

Berg Hall, the parish hall named after the 13th pastor, Fr. Richard Val Berg, seats some 200 guests. The north and south sides are classrooms for the parish's religious education program. The west side includes offices.

The Parish Today

Father Mark Underdahl was appointed Pastor following the retirement of Father Jerry Keiser who served St. Francis from 2001-2015. St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church continues to grow serving approximately 700 households in Afton, St. Mary's Point, Lake St. Croix Beach, Lakeland, Bayport, Stillwater, Lake Elmo, Woodbury and Hudson and River Falls, Wisconsin. The Faith Formation program has grown to an enrollment 90 children in first through ninth grade and Children’s Liturgy of the Word during the 10:30 Sunday Mass. Music Ministry remains a high priority at St. Francis as well with a skilled choir that sings at the 10:30 Sunday Mass, October through May and parish instrumentalist are featured during the Christmas and Easter holy days. St. Francis supports the Franciscan Brothers of Peace in St. Paul and Valley Outreach in Stillwater. In 2016, St. Francis Catholic Church collectively gave $616.93 in financial support, 1,181 pounds of food (equivalent of 908 meals) and 113 hours in volunteer time by 24 volunteers, worth $2,664.63 to the Valley Outreach.