In October 1850, Co. Wexford priest Father Thomas Hore set sail with his entire parish to escape the Great Hunger and settle in America. There he established Wexford, Iowa as the first Catholic community for miles around with his parish called Immaculate Conception.
After he was ordained in 1820, Father Hore spent six years as a missionary in America as part of a Virginia diocese, and after his return to Ireland he always kept America at the forefront of his mind. Upon his return to Ireland he became a parish priest in Co. Wicklow, and then established a loyal congregation in Wexford.
By October 1850, Fr. Hore wanted to escape Ireland’s Great Hunger and transport his parish to rural America, where he would establish a church and a strong Catholic presence. He and 450 loyal parishioners set sail on a voyage from Dublin that took them across to Liverpool to board an ocean-going vessel to transport them to New Orleans and from there they traveled on to Arkansas, where he had planned to settle.
Upon reaching Arkansas, they realized much of the land had already been occupied. Some of his parish remained, but the rest continued on to Iowa, where the land was abundant and the atmosphere reminiscent of home.
He purchased a thousand acres of land for $1.25 per acre – the settlers built their homes and a church out of logs three miles north of the Mississippi River. They also built a two-story building on Fr. Hore’s new farm, where he raised crops and cattle.
By 1854 this new farming community had a total of around 400 members and two more churches. Fr. Hore was the only priest in the Iowa's Allamakee County until 1855. He was known for having looked after the Catholic population in neighboring counties as well, even some in Minnesota. He would regularly visit their settlements on horseback.
Having seen his colony firmly established, Fr. Hore returned to Ireland in 1857, leaving over 6,000 Catholics in the Iowa county. At home he became the parish priest of Cloughbawn, Co. Wexford, where he died in 1864 at age 69.
Known today as one of Iowa’s oldest Catholic Congregations, Immaculate Conception is perched pleasantly atop a valley and has a congregation of about 100 parishioners. This was the third church that Fr. Hore’s parishioners built. They built it out of Limestone and it was completed in 1870.
Today’s Immaculate Conception is a tight-knit congregation that is extremely proud of their roots: “We, the parishioners of Immaculate Conception, Wexford, take the deep-rooted faith of our ancestors that established our parish over 150 years ago,” their mission statement says.
“We will use that faith to bring praise and honor to God by using our gifts and talents to serve God and God’s people with the help of the Holy Spirit.”
Life in Wexford, Iowa is said to be ideal, especially for people in their older age looking for a serene atmosphere. The colony was responsible for the rapid growth of Catholicism in the surrounding area; after they had arrived, many more Catholic settlers followed, especially those from Ireland. The young Wexford, Iowans are especially proud of their Irish heritage.
* Originally published in February 2015.