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Old St. Bernard steeple finds hilltop home near Valley Falls

Heinen Custom Operations, a general contractor located in Valley Falls, works on mounting the old steeple of St. Bernard Church in Wamego on a concrete base in 2018. PHOTO COURTESY OF MIKE SWAN

by Mike Swan
Special to The Leaven

VALLEY FALLS — At the top of a hill just off K-4 highway, about four miles south of here, sits a lone church steeple mounted to a concrete block. And sometimes, passersby can see its striking copper-colored steel shingles glowing in the sun.

The project was the brainchild of the family members of Heinen Custom Operations, a general contractor located in Valley Falls. Dan Heinen and sons Doug and Nathan were working in Wamego in 2017, assisting in the construction of a new Catholic church there, when they stumbled upon the idea to preserve the old steeple of St. Bernard Church — if they could save it from the wrecking ball.

Dan loves the craftsmanship in old church steeples, and this one was from the turn of the last century.

“I have a sense of awe about how high up they were built with the limited equipment they had,” he said. “They did not have the architects and engineers like today. They had to hold up 100 feet in the air. This was over 100 years ago, and they are still standing.’

An antique steeple from the turn of the last century now sits atop a hill just off K-4 highway, near Valley Falls. The steeple was moved there by a family who had an interest in preserving the structure and putting it on display. PHOTO BY MIKE SWAN

Some steeples were built in the late 1800s through the early 1900s, Dan said, and have a lot of the same designs and styles throughout northeast Kansas.

The Heinens had the idea to move the St. Bernard steeple to its current hilltop spot, on land Heinen owns just outside Valley Falls.

But it almost didn’t happen.

“We stood it on the ground [in Wamego] and braced it all off, then laid it down,” Dan said. “The bottom was in stone and there was no framework. We braced the top with two-by-sixes, mainly.”

His sons, who do a lot of commercial work, have big trucks that can haul items like steeples of that size.

But when they got it to the ground in Wamego, the 50-foot-tall steeple nearly collapsed.

“I was ready to put a match to it one day, but [Nathan’s] crew got it done,” Dan said.

They then strengthened the structure and braced it for travel.

Now, since 2018, it sits on a concrete base at the top of the hill off K-4 highway. That base includes stones from the original church. 

A sign has been placed near the structure, just off the road, with an article by the Valley Falls Vindicator, the local newspaper, about the Heinens’ project. In that article, Dan said that whenever he gets permission, he likes to go up in church steeples to see how they are constructed. The article also said there are 72 anchors at the base of the steeple.

The roadside sign, a 4-H project for last year’s Jefferson County Fair, was assembled by two of Nathan Heinen’s children, Benton and Paisleigh. Workers on the steeple project also included Heinen’s grandson Jarett Wildeman.

A small chapel sits at the base of the steeple. Other notable touches include a 19th-century window from a church in Topeka and two deacon pews.

Dan said his family had motivation to complete the project and then it just took off. By using their own equipment, financing, land, know-how and labor in their spare time, they put together an inspiring display.

The site is designed as a place for people to pull off the road, read the sign and potentially follow a path up to the base. By taking 300 or so steps, visitors can gather some inspiration and enjoy a view of the beautiful countryside.

“It’s a good place to meditate,” Dan said.

Reprinted from the Topeka Capital-Journal with permission from the author.

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The Leaven

The Leaven is the official newspaper for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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