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St. John the Baptist in Maria Stein celebrates 175th anniversary

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June 28, 2011

By Eileen Connelly, OSU

ST. MARYS DEANERY — As Uppie Berning walked to Mass on a recent Sunday, the morning fog lifted to reveal the tall steeple of St. John the Baptist Church in Maria Stein rising in the distance. For Berning, a member of the parish for 80 years, the sight was a testament to the faith and determination of generations of Catholics who have worshiped there.

 

St. John the Baptist Church in Maria Stein is celebrating its 175th anniversary.  (CT/Jef Unroe)

That faith was celebrated during a special Mass on June 19 marking the parish’s 175h anniversary. Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr presided, with Precious Blood Fathers Eugene Schnipke, pastor, and Thomas Brenberger, senior associate, as concelebrants. Other priests who have served at St. John the Baptist were also present, along with members of the Sisters of the Precious Blood.

 

“Having grown up in rural Northwest Iowa, in a town with a population of 600, it’s always a joy for me to visit the rural part of our archdiocese,” the archbishop said in his homily. “Today it is Mercer County and the ‘Land of the Cross-Tipped Churches.’ I am especially grateful to Father Schnipke — and all of you — for inviting me join you in celebrating the 175th anniversary of St. John the Baptist Church, the oldest Catholic parish in Mercer County and, as such, the ‘mother parish.’”

 

“I offer my congratulation and best wishes to the parish community on this important milestone,” Archbishop Schnurr added. “The Archdiocese of Cincinnati rejoices with you. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati thanks you for the 175 years that this parish has so proudly given witness to our faith.”

 

That witness began in 1833, when three German settlers, all named John, settled in Marion Township, Mercer County, and named the new community for themselves. By 1835, there were 25 families in St. John. Although life was often challenging in the swampy and densely wood area, the settlers worked hard and their Catholic faith was important to them. On June 24, 1836, Father Henry Damian Junker, a visiting priest from Minster, came to St. John and offered a Mass at the home of John Leistenschneider. Within a year, the settlers had erected a log structure that became the first St. John the Baptist Church.

 

By the 1840s the need for German speaking priests in the area was growing, so Archbishop John Baptist Purcell assigned Precious Blood Father Francis de Sales Brunner to Minster and the surrounding settlements. Father Brunner chose a 60-acre tract of land near St. John where parishioners built a convent for the Precious Blood Sisters who arrived in 1846. The new convent was named in honor of Maria Stein Convent in Switzerland, and the village of St. John eventually became known as Maria Stein.

 

The original log church was used until a growing number of Catholics in the area necessitated the building of a larger structure, dedicated on Oct. 13, 1850, by Archbishop Purcell. Precious Blood Father John Van den Broek was the parish’s first assigned priest.

 

Over the years, the faith community continued to grow and flourish. In 1887 parishioners voted to build a third, and even larger church, which still stands today. Dedicated by Archbishop William H. Elder on Nov. 11, 1891, the Romanesque style church features a 180-foot tower, is built in the shape of a cross with three aisles and constructed of locally made bricks and lumber. Ten pillars support the building, and 19 stained glassed windows grace the church’s interior and exterior.

 

A statue of St. John the Baptist stands in front of the historic church. (CT/Jeff Unroe)

Paul Mizer, current parishioner and music minister at St. John the Baptist Parish, recounts the “amazing sacrifices” of the church’s early members in a book commemorating the parish’s anniversary. Through the years, he said, “The church has continued to provide comfort, healing, support and joy for generations of people. These people have generously, and often with great sacrifice, supported the spiritual and physical needs of the church and its members. Numerous men and women from the parish have entered religious life, and currently many organizations within the church continue to meet the need of the parish and help sustain a vigorous outreach program within the community, region and world.”

 

Today St. John is is part of the Marion Catholic Community cluster, along with Precious Blood Parish in Chickasaw; Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Cassella; St. Rose Parish in St. Rose; and St. Sebastian Parish in Sebastian. According to Father Schnipke, there are approximately 950 families in the cluster, some 400 of which are members at St. John. Parishioners include lifelong members whose roots date back to the parish’s beginnings, in addition to many young families. Masses are well attended, and the youth are involved in the life of the parish, Father Schnipke said.

 

“People here enjoy life, work hard and their faith is an important component of their daily lives,” he said.

 

The parish’s anniversary celebration, which has included the sale of commemorative Christmas ornaments and a concert in April featuring the church choirs, has been exciting time for the faith community, Father Schnipke said. “We’re marking 175 years of people striving to live their faith. That’s a noteworthy occasion.”

 

In honor of the occasion, the church was spruced up both inside and out. New carpet was installed, the pews refinished, the sanctuary vessels gilded and new woodwork placed around the Stations of the Cross. Outside of the church, a new statue of the parish’s patron saint stands amid newly planted flowers.

 

The Bergman family presents the offertory gifts to Deacon Omar Bertke.  (CT/Jeff Unroe)

“Everyone has been excited about the anniversary,” said Martha Rindler, a lifelong parishioner who recalled that the original log church was built at the back of her family’s property.

 

Rindler also remembers attending daily Mass before school, delivering groceries from the family store to St. John’s pastor and marrying her high school sweetheart, Don, in the historic parish church. “I’ve enjoyed this parish my whole life,” she said. “There are good people here.”

 

Art Bruggeman, also born and raised in the parish in a family of nine children, remembers the dedication of the Precious Blood Sisters at the former St. John School and dressing like an angel in the first grade to lead the second graders up to the Communion rail to receive the sacrament for the first time.

 

As the anniversary Mass approached, Bruggeman was particularly looking forward to hearing the Gloria that was originally sung at the church’s 1891 dedication. For him, it was the opportunity to celebrate the past and express gratitude for how far the parish has come.

 

 “Our parishioners are hardworking people and we have strong faith,” he said. “That’s what keeps us going around here.”

 

As Berning completed his Sunday morning walk and entered the church for the anniversary Mass, he said he was struck by its beauty, a strong sense of history and the obvious joy among the crowd of worshippers as they sang the opening hymn — “Now Thank We All Our God.”

 

“It’s a pleasant reward to think of all of the people who went before us and what they were able to accomplish because of their faith,” he said.

 

Rose Ann Keller, her grandson, Charlie Huelsman, son-in-law Trent Huelsman, and grandson, Samuel Huelsman are pictured during the Mass. (CT/Jeff Unroe)

The faith of St. John the Baptist parishioners will also carry them into the future, Father Schnipke said. “What our parishioners would like to do is maintain a sense of who they are — a family oriented community with an agricultural heritage. They don’t want to lose that amid the changes going on the world. Faith and community are important to them. They want to hold on to that and pass it on to their children.”

 

Mizer’s book, St. John the Baptist Catholic Church — 175th Anniversary, can be ordered by calling the parish office at 419-925-4775, or at www.marioncatholic community.org.
 

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