Topeka parish’s Germanfest helps families carry on the tradition of Catholic education
by Marc and Julie Anderson
TOPEKA — Maureen Steinbock knows firsthand the value of working hard to attain a goal. She also understands the value of tradition and family togetherness, as well as the importance of a Catholic education.
She hopes to impart these lessons to future generations by her involvement with Germanfest.
A two-day annual fundraiser for Topeka’s Sacred Heart-St. Joseph Parish’s educational fund, the June 5-6 event also helps to celebrate the parish’s ethnic heritage.
Like Steinbock, most of the parish is of German-Russian descent. She represents one of hundreds who work to make the event successful.
As a teenager, Steinbock attended Hayden, Topeka’s only Catholic high school. She worked full time at South-western Bell during her sophomore through senior years, paying not only her tuition, but also the tuition of one of her sisters. Coming from a family of seven children, Steinbock said hard work, discipline, church and family were important to her upbringing.
“I am just following in my mother’s footsteps. My mother always taught all of us that God and church came first,” said Steinbock. Her mother, who also worked at Southwestern Bell, organized the food for the parish’s bazaars because she believed strongly in faith, family and tradition. Now Steinbock hopes to instill those same values in future generations.
“I want them to have the same opportunities I had. Germanfest helps to achieve that goal,” she said. “If not for my Catholic education, I do not know where I would be today.”
The roots of Germanfest date back to the 1950s, when Sacred Heart and St. Joseph were separate parishes. Sacred Heart parishioners celebrated their common German-Russian heritage by getting together for an annual parish bazaar. According to Steinbock, parishioners shared a few ethnic dishes like krautstrudels, but mostly the parish enjoyed dessert in a manner similar to that of an ice cream social.
In the 1970s, under the guidance of Father Robert Bohn, the parish held its first Germanfest. Through the years, the event has grown by leaps and bounds. The two-day event now typically features a full authentic German menu with sage balls and noodles, German sausage, sauerbraten, German potato salad, grebble and kraustrudels.
Steinbock, the kitchen coordinator, said the amount of krautstrudels alone has grown from 300 to 5,000. In early May of this year, she and 10 volunteers made noodles from 24 dozen eggs.
Additionally, the weekend celebration includes German music by groups like the Ed Grisnik Polka Band, the Blautaler Schuhplattler Dancers and the Liederkranz Singers.
Parishioners also build a beer garden, reminiscent of ones found in Germany. Joe Singer, a parishioner and the event chairman, said the festivities are worth all the effort.
“Kansas City and Topeka both have fairly large German communities. Many of them are in German-American clubs. We try to keep the flavor of all things German,” explained Singer. “We’re Volga Germans, but we embrace the whole German heritage. It’s a celebration of our culture, in that most of us came from Volga Russia.
“And really, it’s a reunification of our parishes, in that many of the Sacred Heart parishioners are families who trace their roots back to St. Joseph Parish.”
The event starts with Mass celebrated by current pastor, Father Tim Haberkorn. Father Haberkorn, who grew up in St. Joseph Parish, celebrates the outdoor Mass in German and English for several thousand and said it’s the festival’s focal point.
“Beginning with Mass is important because it is the heart and center of what we are about,” he said. “We are a community first and foremost centered on the Eucharist.”
The event also features an auction, carnival games and several raffles. In addition, a group of men in the parish and neighborhood craft eight to 10 pieces of handmade furniture to sell at the oral auction. Under the guidance of parishioner and home builder Bill Gartner, this year’s volunteers made a cedar chest, a park bench, a dining chest, a Hoosier cabinet, a baker’s cabinet, two end tables, a coffee table and a corner curio cabinet.
Under the leadership of parishioner Terry Casebier, most of the same men work together to rebuild a classic car and sell chances to win it, typically netting around $44,000 in revenue. This year the group rebuilt a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air.
With behind-the-scenes work starting in February and running a few weeks past the event itself, it might be easy to lose sight of the event’s main goals: to celebrate the parish’s ethnic heritage, to reaffirm the importance of faith and family, and to raise funds to provide another generation the same opportunities.
With thousands of details to attend to — ranging from writing news releases to ordering potatoes for the German potato salad to embroidering nearly 300 tea towels for sale — it might seem overwhelming. But parishioners said that while Germanfest involves hard work, it’s also fun and rewarding.
“I was born into a Catholic family and raised Catholic,” Gartner said. “I went to grade school here, and both my wife and I are graduates of Hayden. It was important to us that our four kids receive a Catholic education as well. All of our work here [on the furniture] is our way of stewardship. None of us are really committee-type people. So, we do this instead — because we want our kids and grandkids to have the same opportunities we had.”
“Quite a few years before I became Catholic, my oldest daughter, around six years old, came home from Mass and asked why I didn’t go to church with the rest of the family. I could not give her an answer,” he said.
Over time, Casebier started attending Mass with his wife and two daughters.
“I started thinking, ‘This is pretty neat. It’s worth it,’” he said.
Eventually, Casebier joined the Catholic Church. He was surprised to learn his conversion inspired someone else.
“Soon after I joined the church, Dad called and said he wanted to talk to me. . . . He told me he’d been watching me and the turnaround in my family’s life,” Casebier recalled. “He said he was going to take classes. He asked, ‘Would you be my sponsor?’”
“That was the biggest thing for me — watching how my family grew in so many ways,” said Casebier, adding he wants to see the same for his grandson. This fall, his grandson will attend Holy Family Grade School, the school shared with Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish.
Father Haberkorn said he is gratified to see his parishioners, approximately 1,500 to 2,000 in number, working together to celebrate their past and impart lessons to future generations.
As someone of German-Russian descent himself, Father Haberkorn also enjoys the food and music. Even Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, he said, also of German heritage, has attended the event and seemed to enjoy himself.
“Now that we’ve had Archbishop Naumann come,” joked Father Haberkorn, “we are hoping to have the pope come, too! After all, he’s one of us!”