Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, more commonly known as St. Mary’s Church, was founded in Altus (Franklin County) in 1879. It has been located atop Pond Creek Mountain, better known as St. Mary’s Mountain, since its inception. The congregation was founded by and for immigrants from Germany and Switzerland. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 and the Kulturkampf (religious persecution) of the 1870s in Germany drove many Catholics out of Europe and to the Altus region of Arkansas.
As these new immigrants did not speak English, there was a conscious effort on the part of the Church to get a German-speaking priest in order to maintain these immigrants in the Catholic faith. After St. Mary’s became established, the fact that there was a German-speaking priest was touted by local land agents to draw more immigrants to the region to build up the labor pool.
The Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad Company donated the initial forty acres for the church. Direct ties to the local economy have persisted over the years. Many of the immigrants worked in the local coal mines, and the local vineyards and wineries that abound in the Altus region are a direct result of the initial Swiss and German immigration. Moreover, the descendants of those original immigrants were largely responsible for raising half a million dollars to restore St. Mary’s Church in 1997–1999.
From 1879 to 1902, the congregation met in a wooden structure. The cornerstone of the existing Romanesque church was laid on May 24, 1901, and the building was dedicated on September 2, 1902. The sandstone rock from which the basilica-type church is constructed was mined from the adjacent hillside. The exterior walls of the church are two feet thick, and the walls of the 120-foot bell tower are four feet thick. The pillars in the church give the appearance of solid granite, but they are actually painted cedar. It took several more years for the remaining accoutrements—such as the baptismal font, bells, stained-glass windows created by Emil Frei, pipe organ, and dramatic murals—to be put in place. The murals were painted by the German artist Fridolin Fuchs between 1915 and 1916. The original design and drawing of the murals was done by then-pastor Placidus Oeschle. The image of Fuchs can be seen in the corner of the mural of Jesus routing money changers from the Temple. In 1963, some of this dramatic artwork was covered with paint, but it was fully revealed in the most recent renovation. The impressive 1897 John George Pleffer pipe organ was purchased in 1924 and rebuilt by the church in 1986.
St. Mary’s Church stands as a place of worship for its current congregation and as a grand testimony to new immigrants making their way in the United States. The church, which has been staffed by the Order of St. Benedict since its inception, also operated a school there for much of its history. St. Mary’s Church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
For additional information:
Canady, Virginia. Altus, Arkansas: 100 Years of History, 1888–1988. N.p.: 1988.
“Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.” National Register of Historic Places nomination form. On file at Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Gallagher, Mary Maude. 100 Years of St. Mary’s Church, Altus, and Its Mission, St. Matthew’s, Coal Hill. Fort Smith, AR: Vonder Heide Print. and Litho., 1979.
University of Arkansas at Fort Smith