Rebuilding the cornerstone of a community

Father Jeremy Heppler, OSB, celebrates Mass at the renovated St. John Oratory in Doniphan. The church had fallen into disrepair. The renovation was made possible by the Friends of St. John Oratory, a group of community members dedicated to seeing the church restored. LEAVEN PHOTO BY LAURENCE ROSSI

by Laurence Rossi

DONIPHAN — On a gray Sunday afternoon, the community surrounding Doniphan came together to celebrate Mass and enjoy a potluck at St. John the Baptist Church/Oratory.

But they were celebrating a considerable community achievement as well: the very church in which they stood. Three years ago, St. John Church sat in near ruin, with a leaking roof, a crumbling ceiling and heavily damaged floors and walls.

Today, on its 150th anniversary, the church is pristine. Crumbling walls have been replastered, damaged art has been restored and the roof and ceiling have been replaced.

But it did not get that way overnight.

There had been interest in renovating the dilapidated church since the early 2000s, but it was not until the summer of 2014 that area local David Stecher set plans into motion.

He formed the Friends of St. John’s Oratory, a group of community members dedicated to seeing the church restored. Donations were collected not only from locals, but from people around the country with connections to St. John.

With their contributions, the Friends were able to pay contractors for much of the specialized work that needed to be done as well as provide materials for work that was done entirely by volunteers.

Some of these volunteers included an enterprising group of Benedictine College students, led by James Sowinski. Sowinski, a recent graduate, stumbled upon the church while driving around the countryside one day.

He asked Father Meinrad Miller of St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison about it, and was put in contact with the Friends.

Before long, he and other students became part of the project. Miriam Walski created a mosaic that is now inlaid on the front step of the building, and Maddy Stella restored the statue of Jesus that stands behind the altar.

Many other students spent hours sanding, scraping, painting, doing plasterwork and more.

Mass has been celebrated at St. John a few times in recent years, but this is the first time since the renovation has been largely completed.

Opened in 1867, St. John Church served as the original home parish of Father Henry Lemke and the Benedictine monks that now reside in Atchison.

“This is where the abbey and the college were founded,” said Abbot James Albers. “It’s an important sign of the dedication of the faithful and the monks that came before us and raised it up as a place of faith in Doniphan.”

When the parish could no longer support itself as an independent community, St. John was designated “an oratory in connection with the abbey,” said Abbot James.

It remained in service to the community until 1991, when it fell into disrepair and went unused.

But its impact on the community remained.

That was made clear in a slideshow presentation about the history of the church, including many family photos from decades past.

Sowinski led the presentation, but did not have to narrate it.

“That was my first Communion class!” one audience member proclaimed.

Others soon followed:

“That was my wedding!”

“He was my favorite priest!”

With baptisms, weddings, first Communions and countless other community events, the church’s impact was abundantly clear.

This project was not so much about simply fixing a building as restoring an integral part of the community.

“It’s very emotional to see it done. It’s definitely been a labor of love,” said Tony Huss, one of the friends of St. John.

“It’s a blessing,” added another Friend, Mary Perkins. “And it’s not just a Catholic thing.” In fact, several non-Catholic community members were not only present at the day’s event, but helped with much of the project, recognizing what it meant to the larger Doniphan community.

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