History of St Michael's Parish

During the late 19th Century, local anti-Catholic sentiment was countered by the celebration of Mass in the private homes of Harlan’s faithful. Prior to the establishment of St. Michael’s Church in 1888, Father Weber of Westphalia held these services.

Father P. Brommenschenkel of Westphalia’s St. Boniface parish arranged the purchase of property to build a small-frame church in Harlan, holding mass there once each month. In 1896, Father Anthony Tyszka was appointed first pastor of St. Michael’s, remaining for more than three years. Upon his departure in 1900, Avoca’s pastor served the parish’s 30 families. Seven years passed before Father Peter Stahl was appointed as Tyszka’s successor, also filling the post for three years.

In 1910, Father Charles Burkheiser arrived but after a brief stay was moved to Defiance, leaving St. Michael’s a mission parish served by Father H. J. Albers of Avoca’s St. Mary’s Church. Since the appointment of Father John Burkheiser in 1916, St. Michael’s has benefited from a full-time resident pastor.

When Father Maurice Aspinwall arrived in early October 1924, the wood-frame church had become too small to accommodate 60 families. At the cost of $40,000, he supervised the construction of the Spanish Mission-style building still standing at the intersection of 8th and Laurel Streets in Harlan. Ground was broken on March 19, 1925; and a little more than six months later, on September 29, the church was dedicated on the feast of St. Michael the Archangel. A rectory, designed in the same architectural style, was built in 1927.

Over the ensuing 18 years, the new church was headed by three pastors: Father William McEvoy (1928-30); Father Charles J. McAniff (1930-34); and Father Herman J. Albers (1934-45), who remained until his death. In late 1945, the parish of 135 families was debt free.

Enter Father Leo J. Gannon, who wanted to take St. Micheal’s to the next level by establishing a parish school. Following his arrival in 1945, Father Gannon oversaw the purchase of five acres of land, including architect fees for designing the school, for $18,000. The plot, located at the west end of College Boulevard, previously had been the site of a small college. $110,000 was contributed by parishioners, and the final payment on the school debt eventually was made in December 1963.

When St. Michael’s School was opened in autumn 1954, it was staffed by Omaha’s Sisters of Notre Dame. Two years earlier, Father Gannon had visited the Notre Dame Convent to request nuns interested in the post. In January 1953, Rev. Mother Loyola agreed to staff three classrooms; and on August 13, 1954, Gannon drove Sisters Gabrielis Lutovsky, Mechtilde Ostry and Martin Kubesh to their new home, the former rectory at 8th and Laurel Streets. With the Sisters housed in Spanish-mission style, the pastor of St. Michael’s now lived in the former home of Iowa governor Nelson G. Kraschel, located at 11th and Baldwin, purchased for $35,500.

The Rev. Mother also had agreed to appoint two more teachers during 1955-56. For the next three decades, the Sisters of Notre Dame provided excellent teachers; but, by early 1983, declining membership in the order resulted in a transition to lay leadership at St. Michael’s.
By 1964, the parish had again outgrown its church. At the cost of $211,000, a new structure, spacious enough for 650 worshippers, was built adjacent to the school. This church was built to accommodate the liturgical changes made by the Second Vatican Council. Five years later, membership climbed to 400 families. Father Gannon retired in 1969 to be succeeded by Father Anthony J. Palmer. Fr. Palmer oversaw the $95,000 construction of a new rectory and convent west of the school, facing 18th Street. Many of the liturgical changes from the Vatican Council were implemented by Fr. Palmer.

When Father Richard Wagner arrived in August of 1976, St. Michael’s, now supported by 550 families, was the largest rural parish in the Diocese of Des Moines. The following year, a Parish Family Religious Education Program coordinated by Dowayne LaPorte was established. At the cost of $500,000, construction on the Rosman Parish Center adjoining the west side of the school was begun during the spring of 1979. In 1980, Pat Davitt was ordained the first permanent deacon from St. Michael’s. In succeeding years, he served in pastoral ministry for three Shelby County parishes and then served as Director of Religious Education and in pastoral ministry at St. Michael’s.

Father David Polich succeeded Father Wagner in 1982, serving for seven years. During his tenure, the parish celebrated its centennial in 1988. It also sold the convent, since teaching sisters for the school were no longer available. A portion of the proceeds were to be placed in a future St. Michael Foundation. 
Monsignor Edward Kelly became pastor in 1989. During his tenure, the St. Michael Foundation was established. A lot of repairs were completed on parish facilities. Msgr. Kelly also promoted devotion to the Blessed Mother, resulting in the practice of praying the rosary prior to Masses.

Father Gordon Gittins became pastor in 1996. The planning began for additional classroom space to accommodate religious education and a kindergarten program. From September of 1997 until June of 1998, Father Richard Gubbels supervised construction on the north side of the parish center, where two classrooms and a meeting room were added. It was during his tenure that air conditioning was added in the church. The $250,000 parish debt was paid in 1999.

Fr. Howard Fitzgerald became pastor in July of 1998. For many years, St. Michael’s parishioners had felt the need for making interior improvements to the church, some having direct liturgical applications. Fr. Howard, with the parish council, began the project in earnest. After receiving diocesan approval, plans were developed. The funds for completing the project were collected or pledged.

Then Fr. Howard moved to a new parish and Fr. Jack McClure, C.P.P.S., arrived in 2001. Formerly an associate pastor at Sacred Heart in West Des Moines, he also had worked with troubled youth in Kansas City. St. Michael’s was his first pastorate. The renovations were undertaken and completed in 2002 with the dedication of the new altar on July 28. One particular cause for pride were the new pews, paid for with money raised over decades through a refunding coupons program—money raised by volunteers—nickel by nickel. Also during Fr. Jack's time here, renewed efforts were made to encourage more adult faith formation. The morning prayer groups were begun as part of this effort.

In 2003, Fr. Jack was called back to Kansas City by his order to serve as a pastor there. Fr. Bob Hoefler became the new pastor after serving as the pastor at St. Theresa’s in Des Moines. 
In the fall of 2004, all the Catholic schools of Shelby County were joined to become Shelby County Catholic School (pre-K through grade 8), with the attendance center at St. Michael's. The six parishes in the county continue to coordinate their efforts in working together to support a Catholic school in a county which has had a Catholic school for over 125 years.

Efforts continue to maintain parish facilities with the construction of the courtyard in front of the parish center during the summer of 2005 and replacement of the sound system in the church in 2008.
In an effort to promote greater collaboration among the parishes in the county, St. Michael’s, along with the other 5 parishes in the county, began a county-wide RCIA process in 2006. A first-ever county-wide youth rally was held in the fall of 2008. In February of 2009, a county-wide mission was offered for the first time. Through all of this, CYO basketball continues. 

Fr. John Frost became pastor of St. Michael’s in July of 2010.

Fr. Dan Gehler became Pastor of St. Michael's in July of 2020 and Fr. Clement Owusu became Associate Pastor.

Fr. Clement became Pastor after passing of Father Dan Gehler and was officially installed belatedly at a Mass Celebrated by Bishop William Joensen on 3/25/2023.