Like a rock

Oldest parish celebrates 150th anniversary


by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org ATCHISON — There was a time at St. Patrick Parish, in rural Atchison County, when half the parish didn’t speak to the other.

It wasn’t that anyone was angry. They just didn’t speak the same language.

“The Irish used to sit on the north side of the church, and the Germans would sit on the south side,” said Thomas Wagner, a lifelong parishioner who grew up two miles from the church.

The divide existed during all the pre- and post-Mass socializing, too, and continued even in death: Irish buried on the north end of the parish cemetery; Germans (actually Luxembourgers) on the south.

Descendants of those Irish and Luxembouger settlers mixed freely during the 150th anniversary celebration on Nov. 3 at St. Patrick’s, which holds the honor of being the oldest Catholic church in continuous use in Kansas.

The church, one of the few existing structures associated with the first bishop of northeastern Kansas, Bishop John Baptiste Miege, SJ, is located approximately six miles south of Atchison.

The anniversary Mass was celebrated at 6 p.m., followed by a parish dinner. The main celebrant and homilist was Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann; the pastor, Father Bertrand LaNoue, OSB, concelebrated.

In his homily, Archbishop Naumann said that anniversaries were a time to remember and give thanks. He also spoke of the respect Catholics have for their churches.

“The way we care for our churches reflects our love for God, as well as our respect for ourselves and every other human being,” said the archbishop.

“The presence of the Eucharist makes this the house, the temple of God,” he continued. “This is not just a meeting room, not even just a prayer meeting room. This is a space where God makes himself present, just as surely as the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God walked on this earth.”

Parishioners, who have lovingly maintained their jewel box church, already knew this. When compared with historical photographs, the interior of the church shows little change other than a new altar to conform to the directives of the Second Vatican Council.

The interior is covered with pressed tin, the kind that can be found covering the ceilings of older buildings. The church received extensive cleaning and repair in 2006, with a new roof and interior cleaning and painting.

A state prison crew painted the interior. The statues and decorative details — names of parishioners and pastors on the west wall, and delicate shamrocks — were painted by Cynthia Lee.

Lee, a parishioner and art teacher at Pleasant Ridge High School in Easton, painted the interior details while suffering from a brain tumor. She died on June 13.

“She had two brain surgeries before she did those paintings,” said Steven Lee, her husband. “It affected her right side, and she had trouble getting up the scaffolding.”

“It was three stories high. She said, ‘Help me get up there,’ and I said, ‘Uh, well, OK,’ but we did it — for six days, just like Michelangelo,” said Lee. “She was an amazing person. She had this vision and drive to get it done, and she got it done.”

The parish has always been served by Benedictine monks from St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, and Father Bertrand is the latest. He has come to appreciate the closeness during his 10 years of ministry to the parish.

“I’m very proud, hoping that I can do what many of my predecessors have accomplished,” he said. “It’s a very tight-knit community, closely interwoven in terms of their lives and families. These families know each other. And they are a very talented people.”

The number of families on the parish rolls has decreased from its 19th-century high, but the parish’s vitality continues strong. Even though most families do not work the soil, they retain a reverence for God’s creation.

“The vitality of the parish is definitely a blessing and an asset,” Father Bertrand said. “They look upon their predecessors as men and women of courage and strength. In their own way, they follow their example differently in the modern age.”

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