My search for migrating warblers along the banks of the Republican River led me into Orleans, a village of 250 people, and then St. Mary’s, a Catholic Church set on a hillside overlooking the village. I’m interested in buildings constructed when immigrants crossed the prairie and stayed to build a town and especially historic church architecture. I find beauty in things worn with use and luminous with care.
St. Mary’s Church was built in 1878. The architect grasped the prairie landscape and the courageous, hopeful and stubborn people who made their life and living on it. The design tells of a relationship with the countryside and with a people who were content with health, the pleasures of community life and the work of their hands by day, and restful sleep at days end.
St. Mary’s served as a mission church, and according to the church history, times were hard for the approximately 50 families who belonged to the first parish. The history tells of draught, poor crops, a plague of grasshoppers, bitter cold winds and blizzards yet the generation of immigrants who constructed homes, public buildings, and businesses in Orleans believed that hardship could be overcome, prosperity lay ahead, and the future held great promise. Willa Cather, a Pulitzer prize winning Nebraska author who chronicled life on the Great Plains in the late 1800’s says in O Pioneers!, “A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves.”
The church is built of dove-gray granite on the highest elevation in Orleans. The church and steeple overlook the town. Granite for footings and foundation were mined from a quarry near Woodroff, Kansas, a village on the Kansas, Nebraska border about 12 miles from Orleans. The men of the parish hauled tons of granite with their teams of horses and wagons.
Sunlight glows through the wavy window glass, and the palette of the prairie shimmers across the chapel walls.
I look at St. Mary’s architecture, stained glass windows, and oak pews as art, and I am reminded again of Willa Cather who wrote, “Art is not the result of ordinary moments.” The early 1900’s were far from ordinary times. The new residents overcame severe weather conditions, insect infestations, physical hardships, and instead of hopelessness, their moments in history inspired industry and community pride.
In 1979 the parish published its history to celebrate their centennial. They dedicated the book “to those early pioneers who had faith in God, in others and themselves, and the courage that conquered the untold hardships of those early years.” I sit in the chapel and ponder the phrase, “faith in God, in others and themselves.” Between the slow tock, tick, tock of the clock on the back wall of the church, I slip into a pool of stillness and feel renewed and fresh with hope. What is healing but forgetting and the miracle of courage to start again?