by Marc and Julie Anderson
FIDELITY — Not much exists here anymore. In fact, according to local historians, it’s unclear as to when the once-thriving community’s post office closed. Yet, travel north on U.S. Highway 75 a few miles past the Sac and Fox Nation’s casino, turn west in the direction of a communications tower, meander one to three miles through farmland and you will find an unexpected site — St. Augustine Church.
Standing tall in the middle of a cornfield with nothing but farmland as far as the eye can see, St. Augustine is the fourth church building for this rural parish of just 37 families, a parish that has been celebrating its 150th anniversary throughout 2010, culminating in a daylong celebration on Aug. 29.
The day’s festivities included a memorial service at the parish cemetery to honor the contributions of generations gone by (especially the early settlers who founded the parish). A Mass of thanksgiving was also celebrated by Archbishop Joseph Naumann and concelebrated by Father Balachandra Miriyala, the current pastor, as well as previous pastors Fathers Ron Cornish and Kent O’Connor. Abbot Barnabas Senecal, OSB, was also on hand to represent the many Benedictine priests who served the parish.
Other events included a musical program by the religious education students, a historical slide show presentation, a dinner for more than 300 and a variety of children’s activities, including a makeshift train offering rides to passengers of all ages, including Father Miriyala himself.
At the beginning of the Mass, the archbishop offered his congratulations to the parishioners.
“It is a joy to be with you today and to celebrate this historic anniversary,” he said, adding that the parish was celebrating its anniversary in the shadow of its patron’s feast, St. Augustine, whose memorial the church celebrates on Aug. 28. He also told parishioners that during Mass he would be praying for everyone “to carry on the great tradition of faith planted here by your ancestors.”
During the homily, the archbishop reflected on how “anniversaries are wonderful opportunities to recall beautiful memories of how God has blessed us” and shared how he thought it appropriate to begin at the cemetery and honor the legacy of those who planted the seed of faith here. When the parish was formed, he said, Kansas was not even a state and the nation was on the brink of the Civil War. Yet the faith was already flourishing here.
“It was a beautiful faith, an unselfish sacrifice of those first families,” he said, who built the first church in 1865 and named the town Augustine in honor of Father Augustine Wirth, one of the first Benedictine missionary priests to serve the area.
Elsewhere in his homily, the archbishop said, “Today is a time to allow ourselves to grow a bit nostalgic.”
He invited everyone present to reflect on the generations of parishioners who have been baptized, received their first holy Communions, been forgiven through the sacrament of reconciliation, received the Holy Spirit through the sacrament of confirmation and joined their lives in holy matrimony, as well as all the friendships formed as a result of Christian discipleship.
According to Father Miriyala, who is in his first year as pastor, this rural parish of just 99 people (including him) is a tightknit community, full of members committed to both the Catholic faith and each other.
“They are so welcoming,” said Father Miriyala said. “Their faith is inspiring.”
“They never miss church,” he continued. “That’s a great inspiration to me. . . . They’re very connected to their priest. They talk to me all the time and they know what’s going on in their church.
“They will sacrifice anything for the good of the church to bring as many Catholics here and to continue that tradition.”
That tradition is one of which Evelyn Lierz is well aware. Together with parishioner Lois Bindel, she researched the parish’s history and authored a book commemorating the parish’s 150th anniversary. Presented to the archbishop at the Mass, the book was also on sale to parishioners. Lierz said she came away from the project with a deeper sense of gratitude for the parish’s small size.
“We are a family. Both Lois and I have been parishioners our entire lives, more than 60 years each. Everybody knows everybody, and we all help each other,” Lierz said, adding she feels this rural parish’s dependence on the land has helped everyone to rely more on God’s providence as well as each other. “We are a farming community, and we rely on each other — that is, everyone in the parish — to help.”
Annual picnics, for example, require each family to provide at least six fried chickens, Lierz said. And from second grade on up, every parishioner helps out in some way.
“We always have children younger than first grade who want to help, too, so we let them,” Bindel said. “Everyone helps each other. I think that’s why we’re celebrating here today.”
Apparently, Lierz and Bindel are not the only parishioners who feel the same sense of pride about the parish family of St. Augustine. David Wehner, who grew up in Kansas City, moved to the parish in 1982 when he was 14 years old. His dad had been a barber but wanted to return to farming. So, when a farm was put on the market, his father purchased it and moved the family into the area.
Eventually, Wehner grew up and bought a farm himself just two miles from the church. Through the years, he’s been involved in a variety of ministries, including serving as a eucharistic minister and a parish council member.
This year, as he worked on the anniversary committee, Wehner said he was filled with both a sense of gratitude and awe.
“To dig deeper into the history and see what this parish has gone through — to see how they started and grew — gives you a sense that this place has had a lot of faithful people come through,” he said.