The nucleus of St. Boniface Catholic Church was formed in 1879 by a few determined German families. The first parishioners were of German, Swiss, and Irish descent. Family names included: Hampel, Lipsmeyer, Miller, Nagel, Nutt, Olles, Rump, Siefker, and Volpert. They attended Mass in private homes until a church could be built. A Benedictine monk from Subiaco Abbey traveled down the Arkansas River by boat to first serve the small community.
The Choctaw Railroad (today the Rock Island Railroad) donated 40 acres of land to the community. A church, school, and rectory were built. The first church was destroyed in 1906 but the original high altar, which had been imported from Germany by a parishioner, was saved. The people began work on a new church, hiring fellow parishioner Oswald Miller to design and build the church. The lumber was cut from church property and milled by Fourche River Lumber Company in Bigelow. The church was constructed by fall of the same year and the first Mass in the new church was held in September 1906.
For over 100 years the church has been the gathering place for parishioners of St. Boniface. The bells, placed in the steeple in 1906, are still tolled by hand today and ring out across the community every Sunday.
St. Elizabeth resides in a farming community located on State Highway 154 about eight miles south of Morrilton and near Oppelo. It was originally settled by German Catholic immigrants and is named in honor of a thirteenth-century Hungarian saint who, though born into royalty, committed her life to working with the poor and sick.
The first settlers were members of the Bahr family, who established the community in 1874. The Joseph and Julia Hoyt family arrived about four years later. Other families moved to the area attracted by the fertile farmland. In the early 1880s, in an effort to encourage more settlement, the Little Rock-Fort Smith Railroad deeded a few acres of land to the Catholic Diocese for the purpose of establishing a church. Within a short time, a church building was opened for services. Fr. Felix Rumpf, then-pastor at St. Boniface, was also assigned to the mission parish of St. Elizabeth. Before the church opened, Fr. Rumpf celebrated Mass in local residences. A school had also been established about the time the church was occupied and operated by the Sisters of Mercy from Mount St. Mary Academic in Little Rock until 1948. The school soon closed.
A new church was built in 1917 (with rectory added later) and again a church was newly designed in 1964 to which a parish hall was added. Today, the church remains active and although the founders are gone, their descendants still attend and include the Dolds, Grabhers, Hoyts, Rehms, and Zimmermans.
The Italian immigrant colony of Alta Villa (today Little Italy), Arkansas, was settled in 1915 by five families (Busato, Perrini, Belotti, Granato, and Segalla) looking for a new life and a place to start their vineyards. More families followed over the next few years. Prior to the erection of a permanent church, Mass was said in the nearby Ledwidge schoolhouse beginning in 1919. In 1922, the first church was built. Sources indicate that the original church was a deconsecrated Catholic Church named for St. John the Evangelist located in the Ola community in Yell County. The building was brought to Little Italy and reconstructed board by board in the center of the community, on land donated by the Perrin family, and it served as a testament to the strong, Catholic faith of the community’s Italian immigrant population.
One of the earliest pastors of St. Francis Church was Fr. Albert Fletcher, a professor at St. John’s Seminary, who eventually was appointed the fourth bishop of the Diocese of Little Rock in 1947.
Beginning in 1927 the church has served as the host for local Grape Harvest Festival and is still celebrated today as Little Italy’s Italian Festival, nine decades later. After the long pastorate of Rev. Msgr. Francis Allen, at the end of the late-1930s, the parish became a mission parish of St. Boniface Catholic Church in New Dixie.
After the liturgical changes implemented by the Second Vatican Council in 1967, then-pastor Fr. John Hlavacek (Pastor 1964-1974) commissioned a redesign and expansion of the church. The original structure was deconsecrated and the current St. Francis was built; construction finished in 1969 on land donated by the Bertolo and Maria Balsam family.
For nearly 100 years, St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church has remained the focal point of the lives of the people of Little Italy and reminds of the sacrifices of their descendants and bears witness to their service to God, family, and community.