St. Francis of Assisi parish was formally established in Little Italy by Bishop John B. Morris as a mission of St. John’s Seminary June 15th, 1922. The Catholic Extension Society offered the parish tremendous financial support, in the honor of an Indiana farmer named Francis Theodore Knue who died in 1916 and was the father of two Roman Catholic priests. A plaque in his honor still resides in the vestibule of the church. Prior to the erection of a permanent church, Mass was said in the nearby Ledwidge schoolhouse beginning in 1919. 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. Catholic parishes already existed in nearby Bigelow and New Dixie, but because of the area’s importance during Prohibition, a priest from the seminary was dispatched to offer Mass for the Italian settlement.
In addition to the church’s ecclesiastical role, it was the community’s chief public building for many years. Meetings were held there, community events were held on its grounds, and the bells in the bell tower served as the community’s warning system. When severe weather, house fires, etc. occurred within Little Italy, the bells were rung to indicate an emergency.
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. To access his mission parish, Fr. Fletcher and the other early pastors would travel via train to Little Italy and spend the night at the homes of parishioners, before offering Mass on Sunday morning. The church was the center of life for Little Italy’s inhabitants in those early days and it remains so now. One founder of Little Italy, Maria Busato wrote in her memoirs in the late-1960s, “Non cambiate de posto alla Chiesa che noi vecchi la biamo messa in mezzo al paese comiate i dire tari mo no la Chiesa.” Translated this means, “Don’t move the place of the church. We, the older generation, put it in the middle of the community and we are proud that it is there.”
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. Thus, the current St. Francis Church became one of the first churches in Arkansas to meet the liturgical norms enacted by the Vatican II Council.
Though designed in the modern style of the late-1960s, there are many hidden beauties within the current St. Francis Church that connect it to the community and parishioners. The predella (the elevated area on which the main altar sits) is made of marble terrazzo, which hints at the craftsmanship of many of the area’s Italian artisans. The main altar was hand crafted in oak by local craftsmen Henry Wagner and his son Joseph based on a description provided by Fr. Hlavacek. The Gothic cross under the main altar was also based on a description provided by Fr. Hlavacek and hand crafted by Joseph. Joseph is a member of the parish with his wife, Anita Belotti Wagner, who is a granddaughter of Joseph Belotti, the founder of Little Italy. The side altars, Podium, and Baptismal font were built by another craftsman using the Wagner-built main altar and Gothic cross as a model. The interior of the current church includes six large paintings depicting the life of St. Francis of Assisi painted by local artist Alma Gipson and commissioned by Fr. James West (Pastor 1990-1996) during the 1990s. The Stations of the Cross located inside the sanctuary were donated in honor of John Chiaro in 1995 and were blessed at the Vatican by St. Pope John Paul II. Also located in the sanctuary two reliquaries are displayed which contain over 20 first-class relics of prominent saints in Church history, as well as relics of our Lord, including the True Cross and the Crown of Thorns. These relics were given to the Church from a dissolved Carmelite Convent in Pennsylvania in honor of Judy Dorer.
Today St. Francis of Assisi parish remains the cohesive tie that binds the community together. Many families have joined the initial founding families in worship here and the spirit of Christian service is alive in this parish. We welcome you to our parish and we cannot wait for you to become part of our parish family—because at St. Francis, we are one, big family of believers in Christ’s redeeming grace.
Rev. J. P. Fischer† 1919
Most Rev. Albert Fletcher†* 1920-1923
Rev. Paul Hatch† 1923
Rev. William Kordsmeier† 1923-1925
Rev. Otto Loeb† 1926
Rev. Henry Nix† 1927-1931
Rev. Msgr. Francis Allen† 1931-1937
Rev. Lawrence Schaefer† 1937-1938
Rev. George Carns† 1938
Rev. Lawrence Maus† 1938-1947
Rev. Msgr. Claiborne Lafferty† 1941-1942
Rev. John J. Mulligan† 1942-1945
Rev. Paul McLaughlin† 1945-1948
Rev. Joseph Wenger† 1948-1950
Rev. George Freyaldenhoven† 1951-1952
Rev. William Kordsmeier† 1952
Rev. John Roberson† 1952-1954
Rev. William Wellman† 1954-1958
Rev. Robert Dagwell† 1958-1964
Rev. John Hlavacek† 1964-1974
Rev. Herman Paul Strassle† 1974-1976
Rev. Henry Baltz† 1976
Rev. James Savary† 1976-1982
Rev. Joseph Correnti† 1982-1983
Rev. Amos Enderlin† 1983-1986
Rev. Edward Marley, CSSp† 1986-1988
Rev. Robert Kepple† 1988-1989
Rev. Donald Althoff 1989-1990
Rev. James West† 1990-1996
Rev. Richard Davis† 1996- 2020
Rev. Thomas J. Hart 2020-PRESENT
† Denotes deceased clergy
* Bishop of Little Rock 1947-1972
Fr. Richard P. Davis is a diocesan priest and one of the last active priests educated in our diocesan seminary at St. John’s. Fr. Davis is a native of Jonesboro and was ordained to the Holy Priesthood by the Most Reverend Albert Fletcher in May 1963 at the Cathedral of St. Andrew. Fr. Richard has been pastor of St. Francis and our sister parishes of St. Boniface (New Dixie) and St. Elizabeth (Oppelo) since April 1996, making him the longest serving pastor in our parish’s history. In addition to his assignment in the tri-parishes, Fr. Richard teaches religion classes at
Sacred Heart High School in Morrilton.
Fr. Richard has served throughout the state at parishes in North Little Rock, Eureka Springs, Paragould, Searcy, and at Mount St. Mary’s Academy in Little Rock and
St. Anne’s Academy in Ft. Smith.
Since 1927 St. Francis parish has hosted the community’s annual Italian Festival which attracts thousands of people to the church grounds every autumn. Originally founded as the community’s Grape Harvest Festival, the celebration has grown to attract festival-goers from far off distances. Each year visitors from California, Illinois, Indiana, and surrounding states can be seen flocking to Little Italy to take part in our community’s history and the hospitality offered by our parish. In 2017 over 1,500 attended the event, which serves as the parish’s main fundraiser each year. In the weeks leading up to the event, members of our parish family bake traditional Italian sweets to be sold at the festival. On the day of the event, nearly a hundred gallons of spaghetti sauce (from a long-held family recipe) is served over hundreds of pounds of spaghetti, accompanied by 850 pounds of the best Italian sausage (also our traditional recipe) you’ll ever eat.
St. Francis Cemetery was consecrated in 1926 on land donated by the John Segalla family. Though St. Francis parish church is located in Pulaski County, the cemetery is located one mile away from the church in Perry County. The cemetery is one of approximately 50 Catholic cemeteries in Arkansas and contains over 100 interments. A small Little Italy Centennial chapel located inside the cemetery was constructed in honor of William Wagner in 2015, in recognition of the area’s founding. Inside a special prayer dedicated to the early founders of Little Italy is displayed below statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, our Blessed Mother, and St. Michael the Archangel.
Additionally, a large quartz grotto constructed in the middle of the cemetery honors St. Francis,
and is graced by statues of St. Francis, Jesus Christ and His mother.
William Henry Wagner Centennial Shrine