Sunday, December 8th, 2019, will see the end of an era in Hibbing in general and specifically in Hibbing’s Roman Catholic community. That day, the final Mass will be celebrated in Immaculate Conception Church located at 1924 5th Avenue East.
Due to the high costs of upkeep for this beautiful downtown church, the difficult decision to close it was made earlier this year. Like the parishioners of St. Leo’s Catholic Church on the south side of Hibbing before them, the parishioners of Immaculate Conception must say good-bye to their lovely spiritual home.
In the late 1990s, the three Roman Catholic parishes of Hibbing merged into one community. Blessed Sacrament Church on 7th Avenue would remain open. St. Leo’s Church on 39th Street was closed and the building put up for sale. Immaculate Conception Church still held one Mass each Sunday, funerals, marriages, and feast day masses. Its kitchen and dining hall still heard the busy voices of volunteers preparing and serving pasties, soups, and luncheons through this week. What will ultimately happen to the buildings and property of Immaculate Conception has not yet been determined.
In the 1970s, when I worked in downtown Hibbing at Teske’s Jewelry Store during high school and when I would come home on breaks from college, I often attended Mass at Immaculate Conception. It was so convenient for people who worked and lived near to downtown. People often referred to it as “the Italian church” in recognition of the many Italians who founded the original Immaculate Conception in North Hibbing in 1906.
Over the past few months, a lifelong member of Immaculate Conception, Phil Scalise, has been writing a personal and historical account of the Immaculate Conception Church. I hope that his work will be published so that his wonderful memoir is available for many people to appreciate.
The following article on this page is mainly taken from two sources. In the late 1960s, Immaculate Conception published a parish directory with some historical information and, in 1981, in celebration of the parish’s 75th anniversary, they published another.
I am grateful to the dedicated parishioners of Immaculate Conception who sacrificed so much to build and care for the beautiful church that welcomed so many people in times of joy and sorrow.
~ Mary Palcich Keyes
Now located in the heart of downtown Hibbing, the Immaculate Conception Church had its origin in North Hibbing at 221 Cedar Street. In the original town, the parish was established on behalf of the many Catholic Italians who had immigrated to this country. The original Blessed Sacrament Church had proven too small for the growing Catholic population and so this second church was built. Work commenced on the North Hibbing Immaculate Conception Church in June, 1906, and the first Mass was celebrated there on October 7, 1906. This church was a wood framed structure with a rectory (the living quarters for the parish priest or priests) also located within the building.
Many priests served the parish until 1920 when the original pastor, Father John Zarrilli, returned to once again serve as pastor. When mining operations required the town to move to the south, this church was among the buildings included in the move. Father Zarrilli found a suitable site along Fifth Avenue East in the new town. After the move, the building was enlarged, remodeled throughout, and a pipe organ installed.
After Father Zarrilli was appointed by the bishop of the Duluth Diocese to another parish, Father Dominic Strobietto came to Hibbing in 1923. He served at Immaculate Conception until 1950, the longest pastorate of any priest at Immaculate Conception. During his time there he secured more land to the north of and adjacent to the lots on which the church stood. A new rectory was built (the house to the south of the church today) and plans began for a new church. However, before the church could be built, Father Strobietto’s health failed and Father Alfred Azzo was sent to Hibbing to be the Church Administrator and oversee the building program. (Father Strobietto continued to live at the rectory where he was a favorite of many people of all faiths. He passed away in 1954.)
The cornerstone for the present church was laid on October 14, 1951. The church was dedicated on October 12, 1952. It took many spaghetti dinners to fundraise for the new $170,000 church built in a modern adaptation of the Italian Romanesque style. The graceful copper spire reaches high above the business and residential areas as if to remind all that God abides in their midst.
Outside, next to the rectory, is a lovely statue of Mary. This monument marks the location of the church altar in the original church on this site in South Hibbing. Once the new church was built, and all materials that could be reused were removed from the old building, the old church was taken down. The area where the church had been was landscaped and the parishioners raised funds for the monument to mark the location of their first church.
The interior of the new church welcomes all in a colorful harmony achieved by the combination of light rose-colored brick and a driftwood finish on the wood trusses, pews, and sanctuary furnishings. The hand-carved wooden stations of the cross came from Italy. The stained-glass windows were installed a few years after the church was built. These windows required much more fundraising on the part of parishioners.
It was Father Willard Spehn who became the new pastor in 1952 and oversaw much of the furnishing of this brand-new church. Among those furnishings was a special, beautiful marble altar to be imported from Italy. Father Spehn happily informed his parishioners in late July 1956 that he had received notification that the altar was traveling to America on a ship called the Andrea Doria, one of Italy’s newer ocean liners and an especially lovely one furnished with much artwork. On the night of July 25, 1956, off the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts, in a fog bank, the Andrea Doria collided at sea with another ship, the Stockholm. The Andrea Doria and her cargo eventually sank to the bottom of the Atlantic. Thankfully, despite having over 1,700 people on board the two ships, only 51 lost their lives. Among the cargo lost was the Immaculate Conception’s altar. The marble altar in the church today is the second altar ordered for the church.
Through the next 50 years, additional items for the church would be added or temporary items replaced by permanent, high quality items. Many of these changes would be paid for by families and friends wishing to commemorate loved ones who had passed away.
Among the items added to the church in the late 1950s were the bells. In Phil Scalise’s memoir of Immaculate Conception Church is this paragraph which I find particularly poignant. He recounts here not only the loveliness of the Italian church, but also a particular time in Hibbing. I am grateful that he has given me permission to share this memory.
If you have ever heard the bells of Immaculate Conception Church ring The Angelus or just hear them ring prior to Sunday Mass, you probably noticed how beautiful and melodious they sounded. They have not rung in many years due to mechanical or electrical problems. I do remember when it was noon in downtown Hibbing and the City Hall clock tower would ring the twelve noon Westminster chime (“Big Ben”), along with Blessed Sacrament Church ringing The Angelus, and Immaculate Conception Church ringing The Angelus, and then the noon whistle would sound from the Municipal Power Plant – how our city was given its unique charm.