The parish of Ss. Peter and Paul in Alton dates back to 1838 when Masses were held in a home in Upper Alton. Today, the church, which was finished in 1857, carries as much history as any church in our diocese.
“I love offering Mass in whatever place I am privileged to do so,” said Father Jeff Holtman, OFS, the pastor at the parish. “Ss. Peter and Paul reminds me of St. Mary Church in Quincy where I was raised. It has the same style and structure, even the same paint decorations on the ceiling. I feel like I am back home and the parishioners worship well as we lift our hearts and minds to God.”
In 1857, what was then the Diocese of Quincy, became the Diocese of Alton, making Ss. Peter and Paul Church the cathedral of the diocese — at that time, the southern half of Illinois.
Below the main altar are the tombs of the first two bishops of the Diocese of Alton, Bishop Henry Damian Juncker and Bishop Peter Joseph Baltes. The third bishop of the Diocese of Alton, Bishop James Ryan, is buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery. Bishop Ryan is best known for his active role in expanding the Alton orphanage, which was across the street from the church. In 1919, he began raising money for the construction of a five-story building that could house 500 children. Today, that building is the home to the Catholic Children’s Home.
A beautiful example of Gothic architecture, the church was constructed with local native limestone. Inside, Ss. Peter and Paul showcases incredible artwork, most notably the stained-glass windows which includes the four evangelists, the Annunciation, the Holy Family, St. Elizabeth, St. Cecilia, St. Anthony, and St. Aloysius.
“There is an elegance and brightness to the church and your eyes are immediately drawn to the crucifix above the high altar and then to the arched ceiling,” Father Holtman said. “The church has beautiful stained-glass windows, my favorites being the Annunciation and St. Anthony of Padua. The sun shines through the saints in the windows and in the pews!”
Another striking element of the church are the steeples, which some say resemble ice cream cones. A lightning strike in 1949 burned down what were traditional-looking steeples. Known as the “Old Cathedral,” Ss. Peter and Paul is unlike any in our diocese historically and radiates of beauty.
“To think I stand in a building where three bishops offered Mass in their cathedral and to have two of them buried close to the altar is very humbling,” Father Holtman said. “I think of all the parishioners since 1853 who sacrificed so much to give us what we have today. There is a great connection to both the local church as well as the universal church. I believe this Old Cathedral calls this present assembly to carry on their work of prayer and outreach in Alton. This gives me great joy!”