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Brass Rubbings

Great Plains Burrito

On a Nebraskan parish.


Before I can describe Sacred Heart Parish of Saint James, Nebraska, I have to tell you about the runza. A runza is a compact, brick-like foodstuff of Germanic origin, but native in its current form to Nebraska. It’s a sort of Great Plains burrito, filled with ground beef, spices, and chopped cabbage (cheese optional). Its appeal to Midwestern farmers is perhaps obvious: it’s a warm, portable meal with the caloric value of a plate loaded high at the buffet. A runza is not much to look at, but it fills you to the brim. The same could be said of Sacred Heart Parish.

The first white person born in Nebraska (according to some reports at least), Victor Vifquain, is buried in the Sacred Heart cemetery, and his name adorns a stained glass window in the church. The initial white settlers, who arrived just before the outbreak of the Civil War, were primarily of German extraction. Though this of course meant plenty of Lutherans, there were enough Catholics that by 1873, Crete, a town twenty-five miles southwest of Lincoln, needed a permanent church to house them. On Christmas Day that year, the first Mass was offered in Saint James church, Crete, presumably by Father Ferdinand Leichleitner, who had been acting as priest for the Catholics in Crete since 1871. In addition to serving Crete, many of the early priests would ride the newly laid railroad west, ministering to the various “alphabet towns” along the route—Dorchester, Exeter, Fairmont, and down the line.

Not long after the Germans, a wave of farmers from Bohemia left their mark on the landscape of southeast Nebraska. Wilber, one town over from Crete, bills itself as “Czech Capital U.S.A.,” and you can still buy kolache at every farmer’s market and find bottles of Becherovka, a Czech herbal liqueur, nestled on the shelves of local liquor stores alongside Jägermeister. Less numerous than the German Catholics in town, the Czechs nevertheless kept petitioning for their own church building, and by 1890 they had it: Saint Ludmilla, in honor of the Bohemian saint and grandmother of Good King Wenceslas. After years of either holding their nose and attending a church staffed by German speakers, or else holding out for the occasional visits made by Czech priests meandering down from Omaha or up from Rulo, the Czech Catholics could worship in their own building at Masses offered by priests who spoke their language.

Even though the Bohemians broke off into their own congregation, the town had grown enough since Saint James’s founding twenty years earlier that by 1893 a new building was needed to replace the original tiny country church. Thus was born the present building, christened in 1893 with the rather confusing name of Sacred Heart Church of the Saint James Parish. I have not been able to find an explanation for why the church changed its name, nor why the old name lingered on like a palimpsest. (Our school is to this day called Saint James.) Because of the relative poverty and smaller population of the Czech Catholics in Crete, Saint Ludmilla’s could not stay financially solvent after a lightning strike scarred the church building, and in 1915, less than thirty years after the split, the two congregations were forced to re-integrate at Sacred Heart. According to parish reports, though, this admixture came more smoothly than the first, old prejudices having been largely forgotten thanks to time, intermarriage, and assimilation into the broader American culture. Harder to heal were the wounds brought about by the dismantling of Saint  Ludmilla’s, which was shipped outside of town and reassembled as a farm building.

Still, the two groups did co-exist in peace, and the parish histories paint a fairly sedate picture of the next half century. Even through two world wars, the parishioners of Sacred Heart fell in love, gave birth, and died, with the requisite number of baptisms, marriages, and funeral Masses along the way. Only a handful of priests served the parish during this time—two for over twenty years each—a stability that no doubt contributed to the parish’s equanimity.

Like many churches, Sacred Heart found itself swept up into the energy surrounding the Second Vatican Council, which seems to have reinvigorated the parish somewhat as it headed into its one hundredth anniversary in the early 1970s. Unfortunately that reforming zeal also led to the gutting of the church’s interior. Gone were the ornate altarpiece and side altars, perhaps unimpressive by big city standards, but at least redolent of the congregation’s German origins. In came sleek furniture, bare walls, and the antiseptic feeling of an empty movie set. Worst of all, someone decided to install carpet in the chancel area. Comparing photos taken just before and just after the remodel is an exercise in frustration for those, like me, who happen to like their churches to feel alive. Thankfully, at some point the lush foliage of congregational devotion began to creep back into the building, and in its current form the church’s interior has a simplicity that feels charming rather than deadening.

In contrast to many small Midwestern towns, Crete has never experienced massive population decline, and in fact has grown modestly but steadily since its founding. Starting in the 1990s, though, growth accelerated as factories sprouted up to supplement the farming economy and the local liberal arts college, such that the town’s population is greater now than at any point in the past. This growth came through a new wave of immigration, largely from Central America. 

Fittingly, roughly a century after the Czechs broke off to form Saint Ludmilla’s, Sacred Heart Church of Saint James Parish found itself with another cultural divide to bridge, as more and more Catholics reached Crete from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico. The Great Plains burrito has come to co-exist with, well, the original burrito, quite literally. (Whenever I mention to a stranger that I live in Crete, he or she is likely to respond that we have the best Mexican food in the area.) This time around there has been no talk of a second church, and as a result Sacred Heart now has the largest bilingual congregation in the Diocese of Lincoln.

My family and I are newcomers to Sacred Heart, so we have missed the thirty years of growing pains that have certainly accompanied this new integration. Cretins are a friendly and welcoming folk, by and large, but surely the community has experienced its fair share of ugliness as the Hispanic population has grown to comprise nearly forty percent of the town’s residents. Though we might wish it otherwise, no doubt Sacred Heart has felt these same tensions in miniature, just as the Czechs and Germans once eyed each other warily across the pews and across town. But the parish, the priests, and the diocese have worked hard to ease the transition, and from where I stand the prospect of increased unity looks promising.

True, at all church social gatherings the two groups still tend to separate out, and the language barrier feels  especially wide in those moments. But at other times there is real unity. Certain important Masses—Confirmation, Christmas, Easter Vigil—are celebrated bilingually, with the readings alternating between Spanish and English and our pastor giving his homily twice. Likewise, our Corpus Christi procession and other important devotional gatherings feature prayers in both languages. 

Nearly as important for parish unity as the sacrifice of the Mass are the times when we gather for communal meals in the parish hall. We annually host a kermes, a food festival celebrating Hispanic heritage. This year the mother of our Vietnamese-American associate priest has added a fusion element to the festival by making six thousand egg rolls (What is an egg roll if not a sort of mini burrito?). The Germans and Czechs do their part as well, especially at the annual fall dinner, where enough roast pork with fixings is served to keep the surrounding community fueled during the near-hibernation state brought about by Nebraska winters. As we serve each other, both in food and acts of generosity, we craft those little links that make it harder to break apart.

Recently, our priests were finally able to raise the money to replace the carpet in the chancel area with wood, or at least some wood approximation. They asked for volunteers to help move the altar and other mobile objects in the chancel to ease the work of the contractors. So, on a Sunday afternoon, about two dozen men of the parish gathered, split roughly half and half between English-speaking and Spanish-speaking congregants. We moved the altar, the chairs, and other assorted items in a matter of minutes, and our work should have been done.

Instead, someone—I’m still not quite sure who—got carried away and began tearing up strips of the tattered, tortoise-shell carpet. The whole group soon joined in, caught up in the moment,  grabbing and ripping with abandon. It took an hour or so, but we stripped the chancel down to its studs (or, at least, the plywood subflooring). Some of us tore, removing carpet staples as needed. Others came through with scrapers to remove the glue residue that had once affixed the carpet to the wood. Still others manned brooms to sweep away the glue, the staples, and the half century of accumulated dust that lay underneath the surface. All of us, in turn, loaded up big rolls of carpet onto our backs, or split the weight with a partner, and carried our loads to the dumpster, which soon overflowed with the detritus of the sanctuary.

All the while we worked in that pleasant half-silence that attends men concentrating on a manual task. Few words were needed; as I worked the cleanup crew, my compatriot would gesture at a pile of trash and I would swoop in with the dustpan, sweep the pile, and then run over to the man holding open the large black trash bag. Once in a while some obstacle would appear, a stubborn spot of glue, perhaps, and all the men in the area would grin, especially if one of the teens on hand had to tackle the task. The contractors came in the next day to a greatly lightened workload, and each of us who had labored together experienced that brief togetherness fostered by working toward a common goal. It was a small, good thing to work together in that way, and it is through the accumulation of such small moments, I suspect, that the lasting bonds of Christian love will be fastened between the two parts of our congregation.

Due to the impermanent nature of my job, it is likely that my family and I will not be in Crete more than another year, for a total of three spent here. Sacred Heart is, perhaps, the sort of parish that might easily become a blip on the radar of a long life. Certainly, when we moved here we were uncertain what to expect, coming from the relatively bustling Catholic city of St. Louis to a small town in Lutheran country. But I know Sacred Heart will linger in our hearts a long time, and not just because our oldest received confirmation here (extra early in the Diocese of Lincoln), or that our second-oldest had her first communion in the parish. Rather, it is the accumulation of all the small moments—the blunt homilies of our pastor, the more mild exhortations of our gentle associate pastor, the fellowship found over donuts and coffee, words of parenting encouragement from older couples—that will permanently fix Sacred Heart in our memories. Before I joined the Church, I associated Her primarily with grand moments of spectacle, but my actual Catholic life has been buoyed mostly by the small sustaining moments of grace a parish is supposed to provide. Sacred Heart has given my family those moments abundantly, spiritually nourishing us during our stay in Nebraska. For that, and for the many layers and flavors of devotion it has given, I am thankful for our Great Plains burrito of a parish.

Asher Gelzer-Govatos is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Doane University and co-host of The Readers Karamazov, a podcast on philosophy and literature.

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