For the postmaster of St. Patrick, Mo. (pop. 19), March brings spring rains, blooming flowers and mailbags overflowing with letters.
“As far as we know, we’re the only St. Patrick in the world—at least the only one with a post office,” says Janie Hawkins, 45, who hand-stamps each letter with the town’s specially designed green shamrock postmark.
“In 2006, we hand-stamped about 8,000 letters with the green shamrock cachet,” Hawkins says. “A lot of them had Irish last names in the return address, and even if they didn’t, many added an ‘O’ to their names just for fun.”
On St. Patrick’s Day, more than 700 visitors flock to the village in northeastern Missouri where the beautiful Shrine of St. Patrick becomes the hub of the town’s Irish celebration. Inside the Roman Catholic church, sunlight pours through stunning stained glass windows as tour guide Ellen Krueger, 78, tells how her great-great-grandparents founded the town in the early 1800s.
“Ever since then, we’ve been a little piece of Ireland in the middle of the Midwest,” Krueger says proudly.
Visitors, many of whom sport green attire, tour the shrine, browse an Irish-themed gift shop, listen to an Irish storyteller and line up in front of the church for the “leprechaun giveaway” held in the afternoon. The first 200 visitors receive gift bags, including some containing Irish-made treasures such as Waterford crystal.
This year, the town’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities mark the stately stone church’s 50th anniversary. However, the town’s Irish connection dates back to 1833 when a small group of Irish immigrants settled there. Originally named Marysville, the village was renamed after the local priest found the first choice already taken when he went to apply for a post office designation. Instead, he chose to honor Patrick, the missionary who brought Christianity to Ireland.
More than a century later, another Roman Catholic priest, Father Francis O’Duignan, proposed the idea of creating a shrine to St. Patrick in the town. A native of Ireland, O’Duignan wanted to honor both the saint and the nation that had welcomed so many Irish immigrants. To raise money, beginning in 1936, he sent letters around the country to people with Irish last names, asking if they would like to have their letters postmarked from the town—and also inviting them to make a contribution to the shrine.
It took more than 20 years, but the priest eventually raised more than $250,000 to build the church modeled after St. Patrick’s Memorial Church of Four Masters in Donegal, Ireland. The structure’s crowning glory is 37 stained glass windows crafted in Dublin.
The church has another less visible link to Ireland. “Father O’Duignan put a rock under the altar from Croagh Patrick, the holy mountain of St. Patrick in Ireland,” says Jason Richmond, 26, a church member who leads tours of the church each St. Patrick’s Day. “He said he wanted to stand on a piece of Ireland each time he celebrated mass.”
Today, about 50 families are part of the parish, says Father Paul Hartley, the church’s current pastor. “We are tremendously proud of our shrine and we welcome anyone who wants to see it throughout the year as well as on St. Patrick’s Day,” he says.
During the last two St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, an honored guest has been Marcus Duignan, the nephew of Father O’Duignan.
“I love the fact that he built this church in a rural area, because so often in life we exalt the big and forget the small,” says Duignan, 70. “I’m humbled by what he was able to achieve and by how this church continues to be so well loved by the people here.”