About St. Mary Oratory

Historical Introduction

It was in the early part of 1885, while Rockford and the surrounding area, was still under the territory of the Archdiocese of Chicago, that Fr. Edward Murphy, then assistant pastor at St. James in Rockford, was sent by Archbishop Feehan to organize a parish on the west side of the Rock River.

Due to much enthusiasm over this new proposition, funds were quickly collected and construction began, so that by December of that same year Mass was offered in its unfinished basement. Providence seemed to have approved, since it was considered difficult to secure property in the city, “especially when the fact was known, that it would be for purposes entirely Catholic” (Fr. Cornelius Kirkfleet).  Nevertheless, in July 1886 Archbishop Feehan laid the cornerstone of St. Mary, and upon completion, dedicated it in October 1887. A year later, Fr. Murphy opened St. Mary parochial school in the church basement, to be staffed by Dominican sisters.

After being installed as pastor in 1892, Fr. McMahon, third pastor of St. Mary, served the parish for the next 27 years. During this time, he built a convent for the teaching sisters, a school building adjacent to the church, and finally in 1913, the present rectory- Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Priory.

In 1928, a grotto dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes, was constructed and paid solely by the well-known Chick family, owners of the Chick Hotel in downtown Rockford. Its cave-like interior, houses a simple low altar wherein the Blessed Sacrament is continually reserved. Two shines also adorn the grotto, one to Our Lady of Lourdes, and the other to the then newly canonized St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Somewhat original in design, it continues to attract numerous visitors throughout the year.In 1933, St. Mary was given over to the care of the Augustinian Fathers, who would serve the parish for the next 64 years. Following the typical neo-Gothic ecclesiastical architecture of the late nineteenth century, St. Mary harbors many elements of Augustinian presence.

On February 13, 1962, the church suffered a near disastrous fire. The fire spread rapidly destroying its beautiful interior. The greatest degree of damage was in the rear of the church; this included the organ, choir loft, celling, roof, bell tower, pews, and confessionals, all of which were restored to only a portion of its former elegance.

Given to the Care of the Institute

With the declining number of faithful over the next three decades, St. Mary Parish eventually could no longer sustain itself, and was eventually slated to be closed. This however caused much dismay amongst many Rockford residents; therefore, Most Reverend Bishop of Rockford, Thomas G. Doran confided St. Mary to the care of the Institute of Christ the King, erecting it as Shrine. Having been already present in the Rockford Diocese for almost two years, Canon Rev. Brian A. T. Bovee, who was made the prior and rector, had been offering Mass for the Latin Mass Community in the chapel of the Poor Claires. In October 1997, St. Mary was officially given to the pastoral care of the Institute, with the privileges of all the ecclesiastical records. Mass was again offered on the First Sunday of Advent in the same year.

Since that time, much work has be accomplished in restoring the church to its original beauty. The sanctuary has been refurbished, the beautiful stained-glass windows re-leaded and reconditioned, the original altar rail restored to its original position, and two side altars dedicated to Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, and to St. Joseph were constructed. The priory also received a complete renewal in the abstemious but elegant style of the Institute of Christ the King.  

Canonical Erection

In early 2007, Bishop Doran, erected St. Mary Shrine as a ‘public oratory’, which means that all faithful, drawn to the beauty of the traditional extraordinary form of the Mass, regardless of where they happen to live, may attend the Oratory and receive the sacraments according to the 1962 rubrics.

The accomplishments made in these past years, are due to the paternal support of Bishop Emeritus Thomas Doran and the zealous apostolic initiatives of Canon Bovee. In 2012, His Excellency, Bishop David J. Malloy, became the ninth bishop of the Diocese of Rockford, succeeding the retiring Bishop Doran. With the approbation of Bishop Malloy, St. Mary Oratory continues to be the spiritual home of many faithful from around Rockford and beyond, many as far away as Dixon, Pearl City, Crystal Lake, and Monroe, WI.

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