Locations not on a map
Faith – spirit – heritage – pride.
Those are qualities that keep several small, rural parishes – some with churches surrounded only by cornfields – going strong.
For decades these parishes have been synonymous with locations, but other than local residents, most would be hard-pressed to find these places. They aren’t on most maps. They are no longer incorporated communities – if they ever were. And they don’t have their own ZIP codes.
They include Holy Trinity of Heun and Sacred Heart of Olean (Colfax County), St. Aloysius of Aloys, St. Anthony of St. Charles Township and St. Boniface of Monterey Township (Cuming County), St. John the Baptist of Deloit Township (Holt County), St. Francis de Sales of Schoolcraft Precinct (Madison County), and Ss. Peter and Paul of Krakow (Nance County).
Some are among the oldest parishes in the archdiocese, dating back to the early settlement of Nebraska by European immigrants from Germany, Bohemia, Ireland and Poland. From small beginnings, they grew into thriving parish communities.
Time brings change though, and over the years, rural areas have changed, with many young people moving away, numerous small farms replaced by fewer, larger operations, and aging populations.
But a visit to several such parishes – set amid farmsteads, fields, grain bins, gravel roads and scattered homes – doesn’t leave an impression of decline; rather, of vitality, commitment and parishioners’ pride in their history and heritage.
"We have a lot of history here, and we’re trying to maintain that," said Dave Ortmeier, trustee of St. Anthony Parish. There’s a pride of ownership, he said, with parishioners working together and participating in parish life.
The roots of St. Anthony reach back to 1859, only five years after the Nebraska Territory was opened to settlement, when a group of German immigrants settled in the area. For several years, missionary priests strove to serve the spiritual needs of the settlers, saying Mass a few times a year in their homes.
In 1867, the same year Nebraska became a state, area residents constructed a log church and dedicated it to St. Anthony of Padua. One year later, a more suitable frame church was built and a resident pastor was appointed to serve the new parish.
Although smaller now, St. Anthony and the other parishes share a common history as thriving parish communities, some through the years with their own schools, convents, communities of nuns serving as teachers, rectories, parish halls, and numerous students and religious vocations.
St. Boniface Parish of Monterey Township once had a two-and-a-half story school, including an auditorium, housing for religious sisters of the Order of St. Francis, and a dormitory for students.
"My mother actually boarded there at one time," said parishioner Bernadette Spenner. "And I later cooked for the school. When the hot lunch program began, it served 90 students." But student numbers declined over time and the school was closed in 1983, she said.
The parish now includes the church and parish cemetery.
Often, descendants of founding members or other early parish families, such as Spenner, still live in these parishes.
"A lot of people appreciate their heritage, and they want to keep that heritage going, said Jim Ruskamp, whose family goes back several generations at Sacred Heart Parish of Olean. "What keeps the parish going is that people donate their time and talent. We just do whatever needs to be done."
At all the parishes, members pitch in to clean and maintain the church and grounds, make necessary repairs, and raise money for repairs they cannot complete themselves.
The parishes also are in good shape financially and carry no debt.
"People are generous at the collection too," said Father Michael Malloy, pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish of Schoolcraft Precinct.
At Ss. Peter and Paul Parish of Krakow, that generous support of the parish also reflects a common rural spirit of neighbor helping neighbor.
"If someone’s health fails and they have harvesting to do, everyone pitches in to help," said Eugene Lassek, parishioner.
And priests find welcoming and appreciative congregations.
"The people here love their parish," said Father Leo Rigatuso, who, until his July 1 transfer to St. Matthew the Evangelist Parish in Bellevue, was pastor of Holy Trinity Parish of Heun and the two parishes in Howells. "And they’re wonderful to their priests."
The pride that parishioners feel toward their parishes also is apparent in their support of fish fries, festivals, reunions and parish anniversary celebrations.
When St. Francis de Sales Parish celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2012, "even alumni of the parish came back and we had a huge crowd," Father Malloy said. "Even if they don’t have this as their primary parish, they still have a loyalty to this place because it’s where they grew up."
St. Aloysius Parish of Aloys celebrated its own 125th anniversary June 21 and the Mass and picnic drew 340 current and past parishioners and other friends of the parish, said LeRoy Meiergerd, parish council president.
"This shows that this generation continues to appreciate and takes a lot of pride in what we have here," he said.
And this year’s Lenten fish fry at St. John the Baptist Parish of Deloit Township drew 1,100 people from around the area, said parishioner Tom Kimes.
"We’re almost like a family," Kimes said. "We also have a parish picnic about three or four times a year, and we come together just like it’s a family reunion. When former parishioners come back and they come through the door, it’s like coming home."