The faith and heritage that built rural America remains as a link to the past
"The heritage that we who are deeply rooted in the land cherish links us to the past and to what is to come," Mychal Wilmes says.
The settlers who moved west of the Mississippi River to pursue their hopes and dreams brought with them their religious faith.
Circuit-riding preachers and priests served their flocks until communities were settled enough to construct permanent gathering places. Made of rough-hewn wood and brick, churches created a sense of oneness.
St. Henry church, which deeply roots me to the land and its people, was established in 1859 from lumber fashioned from the hardwood trees in southern Minnesota.
The Irish, German, Swiss, and Roma families who worshiped within the church’s walls were mostly farmers. Many crossed the Atlantic Ocean to pursue their dreams because wars and social upheaval caused havoc in their native lands. The American government, fearing food shortages among a swelling population, encouraged immigrants to come to the virgin land. Various federal government homestead acts gave settlers a chance to build and prosper.
The church grew in proportion to the sacrifices made. Annual fundraisers that included live chickens, food and fellowship made it possible to construct a large parsonage and church hall.
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Before television and social changes, card parties were held in the hall along with an annual Christmas party during which Santa Claus appeared. Popcorn balls, peanuts, an apple and candy were given to each child.
No Holy Day of Obligation was missed should offenders be subject to mortal sin. The fear that I might stumble into sin helped keep me somewhat on the straight and narrow. Mother saw to it that we would know our God and follow what we learned in Saturday morning religion classes.
Father Dudley understood that his male students would rather be hunting or doing just about anything else other than learning from the Catechism. It was something special to be an altar boy; one needed to be trained by the priest to have the responsibility.
It was a huge disappointment when Father informed Mother that I could not be one because I was too nervous to have that duty. She had hoped in faith that I would become a priest as the last of 12 children.
St. Henry church remains, though the passage of time has softened its floors, but its bell still rings strong. The church’s shadow falls on the cemetery, where words faded by time recall the departed. An alarming number of infants are counted among the number in a time when drugs weren’t yet available, rendering influenza and other childhood illnesses fatal.
Civil War and veterans of all the other conflicts are buried here. The news about Pearl Harbor was carried on Sunday morning radio and inspired young men who had never left their farmsteads to enlist.
Every rural community constructs its own tapestry, and it is made strong as steel.
A gasoline station replete with beer, chewing tobacco, soft drinks and ice cream treats once stood nearby. The structure contained a couple booths, a few bar stools, and countless conversations among customers about the weather, crops, and livestock. Gossip, condemned as it was by faith leaders, nonetheless freely flowed.
Dad sometimes stopped there on his way back from somewhere else. The child who too rarely accompanied him marveled at the orange and grape pop, and the ice cream bars. He would, when the change in his pocket allowed, buy a treat.
The gasoline station and its owner are gone.
The church and the cemetery (which will endure until the end of time) remain. I return to both on occasion, to say hello to those who have been lost and to recall happier times when the pews were filled with families who shared the triumphs and struggles of farming.
The heritage that we who are deeply rooted in the land cherish links us to the past and to what is to come.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.