Emporia’s Sacred Heart celebrates with tribute to parishioners’ drive
by Jessica Langdon
EMPORIA — Mabel Gast doesn’t make a habit of wearing a long flowery dress with an apron and matching bonnet — but she happily made an exception for a day.
Dressed perfectly for the part, the Sacred Heart Church parishioner stepped back in time to help recreate a scene from 1911 Emporia, the year two women took the reins and gave a big push to stalling progress on their new church building.
Thanks to those early parishioners Bertha Vollmer and Clara Streator — and many others — Sacred Heart recently marked the 100th anniversary of its church building, which is still in use today.
On Sept. 16, a centennial celebration recreated the day Vollmer and Streator ventured out by horse and wagon to haul the first heavy rocks to the construction site.
“The women were very determined people,” said Gast, who played Vollmer’s character in a reenactment.
Established in 1874, Sacred Heart was thriving in 1910 when the parish cemented plans to build the new church, and parishioners were expected to do their part.
Getting it designed and contracted turned out to be the easy steps. Parishioner Henry W. Brinkman, who designed several churches in the archdiocese, crafted beautiful plans.
However, the heavy lifting needed to move the limestone rocks from the quarry a few miles outside of town left the project stuck in the mud until the women of the parish got things rolling.
‘The rocks started coming in’
Instead of paying someone to handle the job, the pastor hoped the men of the parish would hitch up their wagons and help with the hauling.
Then-pastor Father Berthold Stauback, a Franciscan priest, implored them to help, but his pleas fell on already busy ears in the rural community.
“He was begging them week after week, apparently, but everyone was so busy no one had time to do it,” said current Sacred Heart pastor Father Rich Warsnak.
“So it was two women of the parish, actually, who got tired of hearing the message again and again and took it upon themselves,” he continued.
Vollmer got her husband’s blessing to use the wagon and team one Sunday and enlisted Streator’s help.
“They went out — crossing even a river to get out to the place where the rocks were,” said Father Warsnak.
Some young men helped them pile the rocks onto the wagon, and the women hauled the first load back to the parish.
“The story goes that Father [Berthold], upon seeing that, reported it to the parish the next week, and then the men of the parish — out of shame — realized, ‘Well, we’d better get to work,’” said Father Warsnak. “And so then the rocks starting coming in.”
On Sept. 15, 1912, Bishop John Ward dedicated the finished building.
And on Sept. 16, 2012, the parish celebrated its past, present and future with everything from old-fashioned sack races and buggy rides all the way to big, bright bouncy houses.
Parishioner Sharon Bechtel — dressed head-to-toe as a founding parishioner — gave a lively account of the church’s colorful beginning.
A procession then followed the horse and buggy to the side of the church for the reenactment.
“We saw in our reenactment that then — probably as now — it took the ladies to get things moving,” joked Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann.
‘It’s just home’
The archbishop renewed the dedication and blessed the church, touching on the “countless” sacraments that have been celebrated there.
That hit home with Roger and Nancy Wells, parishioners since 1978.
“I joined the church here,” said Roger.
There, one of their children was baptized, three daughters were married, and now they’ve celebrated grandchildren’s baptisms.
“A lot of our life revolves around this church,” said Roger.
Churches inspire people to glorify God, said Archbishop Naumann.
“They are also a reminder to us of our own identity — that you and I are these living stones. Or as the Scriptures tell us in other places, that we’re living temples of God.
“And each one of us in God’s eyes is as precious as any cathedral.”
Dorothy Wellnitz’s great-grandparents operated the Korte farm where the rocks for the church were quarried, and she grew up hearing stories of the church’s construction.
Her brother, Donald Korte, views this church as something that binds everyone together.
“It’s the place where we come to worship Our Lord,” Korte said. “It’s just a focal point in our lives.”
“It’s just home,” said Wellnitz.
The celebration drew distinguished guests, including priests who have called Emporia home.
Among them were former Sacred Heart pastor Father Robert Weakley, OFM; Father Francis Wendling, OFM, who served at the parish; Father Peter O’Sullivan, former pastor of St. Catherine Parish in Emporia and current pastor of Christ the King Parish in Topeka; Father Jerry Volz, now pastor of St. Matthew Church in Topeka and former director/chaplain of the Didde Catholic Campus Center in Emporia; and Father Ray May, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Hartford and chaplain/director of the Didde center.
The centennial invitation reached far beyond the Catholic community.
“Sacred Heart has been part of Emporia since 1874 and the church has been a testimony of Jesus Christ from when it was built,” said Father Warsnak. “We want to make sure that everyone here in town knows about it and hopefully through it can get to know Jesus better.”
Although Gast wore clothing from the past, her sights were set on the future. With her 10-year-old granddaughter Payten Redeker at her side, she was filled with hope seeing the huge crowd.
“I hope it means that they will continue in the traditions of the church and keep it active and vibrant,” Gast said.