Shrine of St. Patrick Parish in St. Patrick recently presented its 2021 Historical Preservation Award to the late Monsignor Francis O’Duignan.
As pastor of the parish from 1935 until 1957, he promoted the town of St. Patrick and spearheaded the construction of its iconic shrine.
The Longford, Ireland, native entered priestly formation at St. Patrick College in Carlow and was ordained to the Holy Priesthood there on June 12, 1927.
He was designated to serve in Missouri in what was then the Diocese of St. Joseph, which included all of northern Missouri.
Upon first arriving in the small village of St. Patrick in 1935, Father (later Monsignor) O’Duignan was struck by a community that was rich in tradition and rich in faith — the center where the light of faith that St. Patrick took to Ireland 15 centuries ago, still burned bright.
He began collecting the past history of St. Patrick, stating the ambitions and dreams of the founders and leaders down through the years.
He often spoke of how on many a summer’s evening, he would sit on the front porch of the rectory, watching the lights of the unpretentious homes of the village being turned off while silence reigned supreme.
He would look out over the cemetery, with its tall Celtic monuments, and feel a calling to carry on building a community with the foundation left by them, dedicated to St. Patrick and the glorious heritage of Irish faith.
He realized that the small farming community would be unable to raise all of the funding needed for building what would be known as the Shrine of St. Patrick.
With assistance from local Postmaster John N. Kirchner, Fr. O’Duignan developed the special cachet stamping with the words, “St. Patrick, Mo. — The Only One In The World,” to be placed on every piece of mail that passed through the St. Patrick Post Office.
Fr. O’Duignan also enlisted the help of the St. Patrick High School typing classes to process over 3,000 letters yearly to send throughout the United States to people of Irish descent, asking for donations to build the Shrine.
To this day, 85 years later, the cachet is still applied to the special pictorial cancellation envelopes that are processed at the St. Patrick Post Office.
In July 1938, he made a pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, the sacred mountain in Ireland where St. Patrick prayed and fasted 1,500 years before.
He paused to catch his breath on the rocky slopes of the mountain, where a small group had gathered.
“I come from St. Patrick,” he told them, quickly adding: “Not from St. Patrick in heaven, but from the now-world-famous village of that name in Missouri.”
He had come there with thousands of other pilgrims to pray where beloved St. Patrick had prayed and to ask for the saint’s blessing for his work in far-off Missouri.
He was one of 22 priests who offered Mass in the little oratory at the top of the mountain.
There on rocky Croagh Patrick, Fr. O’Duignan foresaw the fulfillment of his dream.
He brought home with him an altar stone that had been used on that holy mountain and a flagstone that had been worn down by the tread of pilgrims throughout the years.
He also brought a chalice from Lough Derg, the other great Shrine to St. Patrick in Ireland.
He would place all three items in the shrine in St. Patrick upon its completion in 1957.
Of his visit to the gravesite of St. Patrick, Fr. O’Duignan wrote: “As I knelt, with deep emotion, by his graveside in Downpatrick to ask his blessing on this great work, I came away with the conviction that his benediction was already on it and that he would bless all those who aided, in any way, the creation of a national shrine in the only town in the world honored by his name.”
Years later, he wrote down some recollections from his early days in St. Patrick.
He spoke of his fear of being sent to a parish where there would be little to do as he was always wanting to keep busy.
Upon his arrival he saw many opportunities — he went to the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) office in Hannibal and lobbied for road improvements. Thanks to him and Joe Hunolt, the area received immediate attention for road improvement to Derrahs, Williamstown and Kahoka.
He stated further that with the generous help of Dick St. Clair, the St. Patrick High School was recognized by the State of Missouri, and enrollment doubled in size, providing a good solid education.
He also mentioned that in those days, when few people went to hospitals when they were sick, he covered all parts of the parish on sick calls and would often call on non-Catholic families as well.
Msgr. O’Duignan later served in Marceline, Jefferson City, Brookfield and Jonesburg before retiring to San Diego, California, in 1977.
He passed away there on June 3, 1991. His earthly remains are at rest in San Bernardino, California.
The St. Patrick community will be forever grateful to Fr. O’Duignan for his vision, dedication, and perseverance in building the beautiful Shrine of St. Patrick.