Humble Beginnings

The origin story of St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church.

In the 1870s, White Bear had no regular opportunity for area Catholics to attend Mass without traveling to surrounding communities. Occasionally, Father Goiffon from Little Canada would say Mass in private homes for small groups, but no formal church was established in White Bear until Bishop Grace instructed Father Goiffon to build a church.

Goiffon was a hearty man who had suffered the loss of his right leg to frostbite during an arduous trip along the Red River from St. Paul to Pembina. Even so, he led the community in the physical construction of their new church.  

By summer 1880, the small church structure at the foot of Birch Lake Avenue on Bald Eagle Avenue was nearly completed, and a dedication of St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church took place on August 15. In almost no time, St. Mary’s outgrew that original 30-by-60-foot structure and it had to be expanded. The rustic church building served the parish community for more than 40 years.

Mary T. Hill, the widow of railroad magnate James J. Hill, passed away in November 1921. Three of her daughters sought a fitting tribute to their mother, and found one by funding the construction of a new, larger Catholic church; Mary Hill and her children had attended Mass in White Bear during their summer visits to their nearby farm at North Oaks. The new building, completed in 1926 at the corner of Bald Eagle Avenue and Fourth Street, was a nearly exact replica of St. Mary’s in the Lowertown neighborhood of St. Paul, where the Hill family had been members for decades.

Sara Markoe Hanson is the executive director of the White Bear Lake Area Historical Society.