Farewell, Fulda: St. Anselm’s Catholic Church Celebrates Final Mass

Burgard, Peggy. "Farewell, Fulda: St. Anselm’s Catholic Church Celebrates Final Mass." Pierce County Tribune, 16 July 2005, 9.

Since 1901, many generations of the same families have attended St. Anselm’s Catholic Church in Fulda.

Not only were many of the area residents baptized here but they were also confirmed, married, and had their funerals all in the small prairie church that preserved through the years in spite of many hard times with disasters.

With bittersweet emotion, a congregation of approximately 275 past and present members gathered together one last time for the final mass, which was held on Saturday, July 9, with Bishop Samuel Aquila of the Fargo Diocese officiating. Mgsr. Joseph Senger, Fr. Kevin Boucher, Fr. Francis Arthur, Deacon Arlen Blessum and several other guest priests from surrounding areas were among those in attendance. Parishioner, Nicholas Schmaltz also gave a touching account of some of the special highlights in the churches’ history and reminisced about many of its past memories.

Bishop Samuel Aquila of the Fargo Diocese celebrated the mass. Mgsr. Joseph Senger and priests from Rugby's Little Flower Church, Fr. Kevin Boucher and Fr. Francis Arthur, and Deacon Arlen Blessum were among those in attendance. A view from the outside of the church. St. Anselm's was a parish since 1901.

Emotional time
Even though nowdays it is not unusual to hear of a rural prairie church closing, it is always a very emotional experience for the families that have worked so hard to keep it thriving through the years. Even though the building itself is still in good condition structurally, St. Anselm’s membership has slowly dwindled through the years from its original 500 members, many of them Germans from Russia to fewer than 18 families, leaving no other option than to close its doors. These original settlers found strength in worshipping together and made the church the center of their lives, both spiritually and socially.

The wooden pews that have been so caringly polished by dedicated parishioners, will now sit empty gathering dust and the walls will echo with only silent reminders of the voices that sang the heartfelt hymns for so many decades.

Many past members of the church took a moment to reflect back on some of the memories that they recall from past decades.

For as far back as they both can remember, St. Anselm’s Church has been one of the main focuses in the lives of Anni and John Burckard.

They can remember attending country school together and each of their families riding to church in a sled pulled by horses when they were small children. Long before their own marriage ceremony was held in the church, they were both baptized, received their first communion and confirmed in the church as were many of their relatives. Since then, nine of their own children were also baptized there and the couple would celebrate their 25th, 40th and 50th anniversaries all in the same chapel.

Nick Schall said that he and his wife Ann Marie, have so many memories of the church that they loved, it is hard to even put them all in writing. He can recall as a young man of twenty-three years old, working on the cement crew on the new church building after the original church burned down, mixing mortar for fifty-five cents per hour. Being such a hard-worker, he was soon offered a raise of ten-cents per hour if he would haul wheelbarrows of cement while the floor was being laid. As time went on, not unlike other families in the congregation, he and his family were more than willing to donate their time and volunteer at countless church functions for no wage at all. Schall said that he and his twin brother, Pete, were the first boys to be baptized, back in 1924. Schall and his wife continued their membership until 1978 when they moved away from the family farm to Rugby. His heart is filled with bittersweet emotion when he thinks that the church where he and his wife and their children created so many memories has to close its doors.

Margret and Barney Bischoff were also both baptized and married in the church. Their thirteen children were also all baptized and confirmed there and several of them were also married there. This year they will celebrate 62 years of marriage and they say that for the most of all those years, many of their happiest times were spent within the walls of the St. Anselm’s Church. In fact, prior to the church’s 75th anniversary celebration, they complied their own history book, complete with a collage of pictures that included every one of the past priests that served the congregation. Their entire family returned to attend the last mass and spent many days visiting and reminiscing of past years.

Pete Hoffart remembers his parents telling him about their wedding ceremony being held in the parish house since it was too cold to heat up the entire church. He and his wife, Katie, will both miss the church they attended for 56 years and where their 25, 40 and 50th wedding anniversary celebrations were held.

Pete was also one of the young men on the cement crew that helped to build the new church. He can still recall the humidity and the heat of nearly 100 degrees, but how everyone worked together until it was completed. The couple likes to remember all of the happy times of so many fall suppers and the memories of their children being baptized and raised there. They can recall walking miles to the church to attend summer school each June.

Agatha and Pete Mattern also spent countless hours at the church. Agatha played the organ for over 20 years, right up until the final mass. Since they had no organ in their home, she would spend hours practicing during the week and still plays at the church in Balta. Even though he was one of the oldest living parishioners left when the church closed, as a young child, Peter said that he can remember Fr. Maurus Engel delivering the sermon in both German and English and how much stricter many of the church rules were back then. The priest would even make annual visits to the area farms and bless the homes, buildings, and crops. As children, the couple can remember riding to church in sleds pulled by the horses that waited patiently in the barn near the church for the mass to end.

Mass celebrated in homes
Prior to 1901, settlers in the Fulda area, which is located approximately 10 miles west and six and one half miles south of Rugby, celebrated mass in their homes. On a beautiful spring day during that year, after celebrating mass in his home, Vincent Volk, along with a small group of men accompanied the priest to a knoll about one-half mile away and picked out a site for a future church. Volk donated the eight acres of land where the church still stands.

The first church was built for $1600, money that was contributed by about sixty families. The Voeller brothers, Rochus, Ferdinand and Ignatz (who was also the architect) were the carpenters and their labor along with the labor of many other church members was all donated.

Two years after that, a house was built beside the church, where Father Joseph Thuille, the first resident priest would reside. In 1903, a new addition, which cost $300, was added to the church as new families moved into the flourishing area.

As the congregation began to grow, the church was able to purchase three alters, a pulpit, and a belfry. In 1908, transepts and a sanctuary were built on the west end and a vestibule with steeple on the east end, costing a $3,000, which was a very large sum of money to raise.

Many priests

Several different priests would serve the Fulda congregation through those first years. Fr. Maurus Engel served the parish the longest, from 1924-1954. Another one of the earliest priests, Reverend George Trunk, died at the age of 102 in 1972, and was thought to be the oldest active priest in the United States at that time. Known for being a very ambitious man, Father Trunk painted the walls inside the rectory and scenery in oils in three rooms and hallways, both upstairs and down.

Approximately 275 attend the final mass at St. Anselm's Catholic Church in Fulda earlier this month.

Mother nature was not always so kind to the farmers and there were many years that they were forced to endure poor crops, drought, and grasshoppers. Even though they had little money themselves, parishioners gave what little extra that they could spare at each collection in order to maintain their beloved church. The year 1936 proved to be one of the coldest and one of the hottest on record. January and February brought temperatures of -50 degrees and summer temperatures often exceeded 100 degrees. The hottest recorded temperature that year was 119 degrees and there were no air-conditioners at that time to cool down the faithful church-goers. The dry and hot windy days often made farmers reluctant to continue seeding because the crops would blow out as soon as they were put in. In 1939, there was so much snow that it made Sunday church attendance impossible for much of the winter. Plows would go through Fridays, but by Saturday night, all the roads would be blocked again. Several babies also died that year due to the harsh conditions.

The church also had a few unwanted guests through the years.

During June of 1942, the men of the parish donated their labor in reshingling the leaking roof of the church. The piles of shingles on the south side of the building made a good hiding place for a family of skunks. After over a week, the mother skunk and her family of eight young skunks had been either trapped or shot, after almost unbearable conditions for teachers and students.

In 1943, the parish priest, Fr. Maurus, walked into the church and discovered that the triple candlestick was still burning. The cloth and rug underneath it was ash and the floor-boards had all caught fire. Had he not discovered it in the nick of time, it would have been impossible to save the church due to the exceeding high winds on that day. But, just three years later the congregation would not be so lucky.

Fire destroys church in 1946
Sadly, on Ash Wednesday, 1946, the church burned to the ground. A determined congregation laid the cornerstone for a new church six months later and after countless hours of hard labor, mass would be celebrated on New Year’s Day. Many years of financial hardship would follow and with the declining numbers of attendance and families moving out of the area, in 2005 the church was given the option of remaining a chapel for five years. This will allow the chapel to be used for special occasions such as funerals, wedding and anniversary celebrations.

Many years of the more recent history are not as complete as some of the older history, which is detailed in a book complied by several members that was passed out to parishioners at that last mass. The pages were gathered and edited by Rev. Donald Leiphon from material provided by Nick Schall Jr. and family, Peter Mattern and family, Theresa B. Lange and official church records.

There are no words to describe some of the emotions that many members experienced during the closing mass of the church. Many of them are the descendents of the people whose names are etched on the beautiful windows that they donated many generations ago. The church serves as a reminder of their endless hours of labor and their gravestones stand in the cemetery next to the church.

It has truly been a labor of love and as the doors are closed the members say that they feel that they were truly blessed to have had the opportunity to have been parishioners of the St. Anselm’s Parish.

Reprinted with permission of the Pierce County Tribune.

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