Father Daniel Francis Dade: Pioneer Priest and Founder of the Mother Church
When the earliest European settlers arrived in what was to become Visalia, not only did they bring their possessions, they brought their religious beliefs as well. They built “Fort Visalia” in the fall of 1852 for security, but the enclosure also served as an interdenominational church. In fact, the three Glenn sisters were married inside its walls. Once these early arrivals discovered there was no need for the fort, they ventured out and built houses, businesses, and churches.
From the earliest time, several denominations including the Methodist-Episcopal South and the Christian Church were in Visalia. The Catholic Church, although not part of the first wave, was not far behind. In 1859, Father Francisco Mora, Pastor of the San Juan Bautista Mission, offered mass for the first time in Visalia and planted the seed for a Catholic Church. The following year Father Mora returned and gave the effort another push, but very little happened until Father Daniel Francis Dade was named Visalia priest by Bishop Thaddeus Amat.
At the time of his “call,” Father Dade was serving as the Santa Barbara parish priest. When word of his impending departure reached his Santa Barbara parishioners, many signed a petition imploring the bishop to reconsider. In part, it said, “We the undersigned, inhabitants of this place, most respectfully request that the Rev. Daniel F. Dade be retained among us. His Christian virtues and charity have endeared him to this community, and we cannot but view his removal as a great loss, both to Catholics and non-Catholics.” Their plea to keep him was not successful and Father Dade left Santa Barbara.
In 1861 he arrived in Visalia, then a small remote frontier town with a population of about 600. He had no church building, so he conducted services in homes and halls. That changed when Gideon Aughinbaugh offered him a piece of property complete with a two-story brick building on it.
The building, part of which served as a stable, was not ideal, but Father Dade graciously accepted it. With some fix up, it served as the church, a boy’s school, and the Father’s home. He named the parish, Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and he called his school Academy of the Nativity. He was the only teacher and offered classes including English, Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, and Italian.
When Father Dade was not teaching or caring for his parishioners in Visalia, he made long distance spiritual rounds with his “gray horse and rickety buckboard,” covering a jurisdiction that stretched from Mariposa to Havilah, now a ghost town once southeast of Bakersfield. The Visalia church, located near the current St. Mary’s Catholic Church, became the “mother church” for many Catholic congregations established throughout the southern San Joaquin Valley.
Although he was a Catholic priest, Father Dade was highly respected by people of all faiths. According to Sister Mary Thomas, his biographer, “He made himself loved universally by old and young, by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. In social affairs, Father Dade mixed with all regardless of their religious affiliations.”
Although many of the early church records are gone, the first Visalia marriage performed by him took place on May 30, 1861 between Edward Milford and Catherine Kickem. He also signed the first baptismal record for Joseph Benson.
For the next several years, Father Dade taught at his school, ministered to his growing Visalia congregation, rode the missionary circuit, and helped with numerous non-church community activities. By 1868 he began working on plans for a larger church. He had space near the original church, so on October 18, 1868, construction on the new parish began by local contractors Redd & Palmer.
On Sunday, September 26, 1869, at 10:30 a.m., the dedication ceremony for the brick Church of the Nativity took place with Father Dade and a large number in attendance. The solemn event was led by visiting Rev. Father Patrick Henneberry, a friend of Father Dade.
By 1872 Father Dade’s hard work was taking its toll. He was exhausted, which was made worse by the malaria he had contracted. Then in April the beloved pastor was seriously ill with “hemorrhage of the stomach.”
He tendered his resignation from the Visalia parish and was given a less stressful assignment as principal of a boy’s school in Rohnerville, California. Word of his leaving was a blow to the parishioners, but as a parting gift, they gave him $450 and shared their feelings in an open letter in the Tulare Times published August 31, 1872. They said, “During your sojourn in our midst, you have proved yourself a devoted pastor by your holy work and conversation. By your zeal, energy, and industry, you have done much to advance the material interests of this community and have ever been the friend of education and progress.”
The departing padre answered their kindness by writing back, “More than a decade of years have I been in your midst, laboring in a quiet unostentatious way for your spiritual advancement, for the prosperity and improvement of our beautiful little town, for the culture and education of your dear little ones, your richest and most precious treasures, during all which time I have been cheered and encouraged by you…Oh, how can I thank you? Farewell, dear, kind friends, farewell.”
On April 30, 1874, the Visalia Weekly Delta reported the sad news. Father Dade, Visalia’s first Catholic priest had died on April 2, 1874, in Rohnerville at the age of 58. He had been in Visalia during some of its darkest days and had helped the little town survive. His conciliatory and compassionate style helped bring people together and it was his leadership and hard work that formed the foundation for Visalia’s St. Mary’s Catholic Church.
I am grateful to Sister Mary Thomas for her Father Dade biography called Apostle of the Valley, and to contemporary historian and friend William “Bill” R. Allen for his book It Started in the Stable. Both are wonderful local history books and are still available.