The mission style church in the heart of Omaha’s “Little Italy” neighborhood is the third home for this worshipping community. The parish history begins with St. Mary’s Church the first Catholic Church built in Omaha in 1856. Located on the east side of Eighth Street between Harney and Howard, the structure was too small from the beginning and plans began almost immediately to build a bigger church.
In 1857, with the appointment of a Bishop to oversee the region, plans began in earnest to build the first Cathedral for Omaha, St. Philomena’s, to replace St. Mary’s. That building was completed in 1868 and was located on the west side of Ninth between Harney and Howard. The old St. Mary’s was converted into a Catholic School. The high marble altar for the original cathedral (which now graces the sanctuary wall of St. Frances Cabrini Church) was donated by Mary Creighton in 1867 for $4,900 and came from Italy.
During the next 40 years the area around old St. Philomena’s would become a center of warehouses and industry, so much so that it was decided by the diocese in 1901 to build a new Cathedral to the west on 40th Street and a new parish church to serve the local community to the south at the corner of 10th and William. The block on which sat the church, school and rectory was purchased by John Deere and Company for a major warehouse which became a part of the famed “Jobbers Canyon”. The area is now the large green lawn north of Embassy Suites.
The two new structures would both be designed by nationally recognized Omaha architect Thomas Rogers Kimball. The smaller building, carrying on the name St. Philomena’s, was completed in 1908. The church at 10th and William is an important early example of the Spanish Colonial Revival Style which reached its zenith in American architecture between 1915 and 1940. The larger building, St. Cecilia’s, would not be in use until 1917, so the new building at St. Philomena’s would occasionally host diocesan events. Kimball based his design for both buildings on the historical building styles which Spain had brought to the Valley of Mexico and then to the remote missions of the Pacific coast in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The four large bells, cast in Troy, New York in 1873, which rang over downtown Omaha for 40 years were moved to the new St. Philomena’s as well as the 1869 Johnson & Son pipe organ, the first in Omaha if not the State of Nebraska.
May 23rd, 1961, the church was renamed to honor the first American citizen to be canonized, Frances Xavier Cabrini. It was named an Omaha Landmark in 1979 and it was added to the National Register in 1980.