Article By Jay Nies
The trials and hardships one young man cheerfully endured served only to bring him holiness and long for greater Communion with God. Such also has been the case for a Catholic community that bears that young man’s name – the parish of St. Stanislaus Kotska, which recently celebrated its 125th anniversary. About 400 people on April 30 attended the Mass and reception with Bishop John R. Gaydos, a few months into the parish’s 126th year. The bishop also blessed the new mausoleum in the parish cemetery. “There’s a real spirit of participation and involvement here,” said Father Gregory C. Meystrik, the 19th and current pastor. “Folks say that’s a hallmark of the parish. People want to be involved.”
Founded in 1880 as a mission of already-venerable St. Francis Xavier parish in Taos, Wardsville’s St. Stanislaus parish has grown considerably over the past sixscore and five years. But to this day, it retains much of the rural character of a generation of Cole County Catholics who first came together for worship in a rustic former Baptist church built of logs.
Volunteers abound, especially in the school. “People turn up in droves for class parties and activities and things like that,” said Fr. Meystrik.
Mass attendance remains healthy and robust. “The church is kind of cozily full as it needs to be on Sunday,” the pastor noted. “I think that ‘closeness’ also helps keep people involved.”
“This spirit of cooperation and concern,” observed lifelong parishioner Pauline Markway, “is evident in the time-and-talent area and in the day-to-day interaction of people. On Sunday morning after Masses, many people linger outside to visit with friends and neighbors, and cheerful greetings are abundant.” In a little chapel off the sanctuary, parishioners and visiting Catholics cooperate in a perpetual vigil of adoration before the Most Blessed Sacrament: Christ Fully Present in the host kept in a monstrance atop a simple altar. It has been so for almost two decades.
Mrs. Markway noted that the perpetual adoration was established while Father Brendan Doyle was pastor, “with the cooperation of our good neighbors in St. Margaret parish in Osage Bend.” “We have since been happy to welcome into the devotion some of our neighbors from Taos, St. Thomas and Jefferson City,” she said. “Being situated at the crossroads of Routes B, W and M, this is an ideal location. Many have been involved in the devotion since the beginning and have no intention of leaving it.”
German-speaking immigrants, many of them Catholic, began flooding into the United States in the 1830s. The lure of affordable, fertile land drew them to Central Missouri, where they clustered into communities hoping to keep their language, culture and faith alive.
Jesuit Father Ferdinand Benedict Ghislain Helias D’Huddeghem – a Flemish missionary known as “the apostle of Central Missouri” – crossed the Osage River in the Spring of 1838. Originally hoping to evangelize the native peoples of this continent, he quickly adapted to the role of horseback pastor to the mostly German Catholic enclaves he helped establish along the Missouri and Osage rivers. In later years, he settled into parish life at Taos. His parish covered the territory starting at Osage Point below Osage City, present-day Taos, Wardsville, Osage Bend and Osage Bluff.
“Our ancestors,” notes a Wardsville parish centennial book written in 1980, “came to church and school (in Taos) on foot if living two miles distance, while others living ‘on the other side of the Osage’ crossed in skiffs propelled by experienced oarsmen to a distance parallel to Wardsville on the west, and proceeded the additional two miles on foot. …”
Wardsville’s founder, a Baptist named Edward Ward, donated land for a Catholic house of worship. Parishioners bought and reassembled an old Baptist log church on the donated site. Fr. Helias and his successor, Father John Gruender, traveled to present-day Wardsville once a month to celebrate Mass.
In November 1880, Archbishop Peter R. Kenrick of St. Louis sent Father Henry A. Hukestein to Wardsville to establish a parish. He entrusted it to the patronage of St. Stanislaus Kotska, a Polish Jesuit scholastic to whom God granted an overwhelming capacity for patience and holiness. Through visions and powerful witness, God used Stanislaus to awaken the faith of the people around him right up to his death in 1568 at age 18.
Construction of a new brick church was begun in 1881 and completed in 1883. Fr. Hukestein, formerly a schoolmaster, turned the log church into a school and began teaching the children. Prayers and sermons at Mass were given in German and English until World War I. A commodious schoolhouse with room for 160 students was dedicated in 1898.
Catholic education has remained a parish priority. Through the years, Ursaline Sisters, School Sisters of St. Francis, Sisters of the Divine Providence, Sisters of Mercy of Sligo, Ireland, and Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word have served the school, which now is operated by laypeople.
Current parishioners Brian and Suzette Mertens met each other as students at St. Stanislaus School. Mrs. Mertens taught there for three years. “St. Stanislaus is excellent,” she said. “That’s why I wanted to come back and teach here. My childhood was perfect. I thoroughly enjoyed school, especially at St. Stan’s, and I wanted to teach others our wonderful faith and do it in my hometown.”
She said the parish continues to offer an ideal environment to raise children and model the faith. She said going to Mass as a family makes her most aware of God’s presence. She is delighted to see students she helped prepare for First Holy Communion, who are now in high school, continue going to Mass with their families.
Now, the Mertens are particularly grateful that the first of their two children, a second-grader at St. Stanislaus School, has received her First Holy Communion in St. Stanislaus Church, just like her parents.
“People will tell you they can tell which kids have gone to St. Stanislaus elementary school,” said Mrs. Mertens. “I’m proud to say that I belong here and have that kind of representation.”
Stones and vaults
In 1923, the parish began building a new church of stone quarried on nearby farms, and locally kilned brick. Parishioners hauled the stone and helped with construction. The impressive, vaulted church was dedicated in 1925, with windows above the altar depicting the Holy Trinity. Lightning struck the bell tower in 1927, causing a fire that gutted the entire building.
The late Herb Raithel, who grew up in the parish, in 2001 recalled attending Masses in the old parish hall for a year and a half while the present church was being rebuilt.
Once again, parishioners pitched in to get the work done. Years later, that same spirit of cooperation and concern for neighbor still prevails, noted Mrs. Markway. “Having been born and grown up in this farming community in an era when manpower and horse-power still reigned supreme and engines for farming purposes were only beginning to replace the horse, I learned the value of cooperation and concern among neighbors,” she observed. As then, the parish is still a center of focus in the community.
Mrs. Markway noted that in the early 1950s, the year the Markways’ first child was to begin school, the parish had to decide whether to forsake public funding, keep the Catholic sisters in the school and continue offering religious instruction there, or switch over to a public school. “We chose to dig deeper into our pockets and support the school ourselves,” she said. “Through the efforts and determination of this parish, that school has grown from three classrooms to a present enrollment of approximately 300 in a new building, which has had to be expanded several times.”
The parish now has about 600 registered families, many of whom still pitch in. “I’ve always admired the great cooperation that exists between the priests, the religious and the people of St. Stanislaus,” the late Bishop Michael F. McAuliffe wrote for the parish’s centennial in 1980. “Such a spirit evident in a parish produces an abundance of good fruit for the Kingdom of God. The harvest of good works in such a place is marvelous to behold.”
Annual events continue to bring parishioners together. Each spring, the Walk for Life, sponsored by the Knights of Columbus and the Lions Club, has raised thousands of dollars for pro-life causes. “Annually,” Mrs. Markway stated, “our senior citizens look forward to a Palm Sunday breakfast hosted by the Catholic Youth Organization, which gives us an opportunity to visit with many of those we see less often. Our prayer line offers hope and consolation for anyone who asks, and often temporal help as well. It was a God-send to me several years ago when I had surgery.”
Fr. Meystrik and a group of lay extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion regularly bring Christ Fully Present to homebound parishioners. “Mondays and Tuesdays find a group of ladies diligently working on a beautiful assortment of quilts to be auctioned at our annual picnic, an occasion when cooperation and community spirit come together for the entire parish,” said Mrs. Markway. “One day this spring we looked out across the road to see many men working on the cemetery, cleaning, re-seeding and doing whatever was needed to maintain and beautify it,” she said. “We have a number of loved ones buried there and would be unable to do this for them ourselves.”
The church sparkles, thanks to the ladies who take turns cleaning it each weekend, and who come together for the annual “scrub down.” The 125th anniversary celebration provided yet another opportunity for parishioners to come together, work together and give thanks together. “It was a great celebration and moment for us to remember and be thankful to God, Who makes it all possible for us,” said Fr. Meystrik.
Mrs. Mertens hopes all the faithful of the diocese will pray that Wardsville’s spirit and support will remain plentiful for another 125 years and beyond. She thanks God and generations of dedicated parishioners for keeping the school thriving and modeling the faith every day.
Mrs. Markway continues the jubilee celebration in her heart. “I thank God for planting me right here in St. Stanislaus parish where I can attend Mass during the week and live among people who really care about other people,” she said. “And I hope to give back as much as I can as long as I can.”