St. John’s was founded in 1882 by a group of dedicated German, Luxembourg and Irish Catholics who grew tired of traveling by horse and buggy to New Trier and Coates to attend Mass. On Nov. 10, 1881, a group of men gathered in a yard in Vermillion and decided to build a church of their own. Even though the priest at St. Mary’s in New Trier opposed their plan, they decided to build it without his blessing — and without the knowledge of the bishop of the St. Paul Diocese. They were punished for their stubbornness, but the church has flourished for more than 125 years. Today, the parish has 252 families, a beautiful, well-maintained church and a thriving, growing parochial school with 134 students in preschool through fifth grade. Unlike many schools in the archdiocese, St. John’s has a waiting list in kindergarten and both levels of preschool.
History of St. John the Baptist Church
The early years: A story of faith and never-say-die commitment
Note: The following historical account was taken from a book celebrating the church’s 125th birthday in 2007.
The first Mass was not held in Vermillion Township until May 8, 1856, when the Rev. Father George Keller traveled to J.J. Fuchs’ log home for the historic event. The log home was located on what later became the Pete Kieffer home on Lewiston Boulevard, just west of Goodwin Ave. This first Mass led to the eventual formation of St. Mary’s parish in New Trier.
Prior to 1882, German and Luxembourg Catholics residing in and around the village of Vermillion attended Mass at St. Mary’s in New Trier, while Irish residents attended St. Agatha’s Church, which then was located in the northeast quarter of Section 8 in Vermillion Township.
On Nov. 10, 1881, a group of men living in the Vermillion area gathered under a tree near the home of Nicholaus Klotz (the home on the east side of the present Vermillion Bank) to discuss the possibilities of rectifying this clearly unsatisfactory arrangement by building their own church. Included in this group of farsighted pioneers were August Langenfeld, Nicholaus Klotz, Jacob Kummer, John Breuer, Joseph Sausen, Johann Therres, Nicholaus Reiter, Gottfried Beissel, Gilles Krausen, John P. Reuter and Conrad and Michael Holzemer.
After considerable discussion, those at the meeting decided to build a church in the village. August Langenfeld, Jacob Kummer and Nicholaus Klotz were assigned to confer with the Rev. Father Gregory Koering, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in New Trier, where they had been attending Mass. Undoubtedly expecting that their plan would be met with an enthusiastic endorsement, the men were thoroughly surprised and discouraged when Father Koering offered nothing but total opposition.
In defense of Father Koering, it must be pointed out that his parish already had lost a branch to Cannon Falls and another to Miesville. It also was highly probable that he would be assigned to serve this new parish on a part-time basis were he to give these men permission to build their church. Under those circumstances, Father Koering’s early opposition is understandable.
The committee returned with the disheartening news. But after several additional meetings, the entire group, displaying a gallant independence if not outright stubbornness, elected to build their church without Father Koering’s permission and without the knowledge of the bishop of the St. Paul Diocese.
Henry Durr, a schoolteacher who taught in the District #35 school located on the northeast corner of the Ron Girgen farm at 170th Street and Goodwin Ave., drew the plans for the new church. The May 19, 1882, edition of the Hastings Union announced that “a new Catholic church is to be built in the Village of Vermillion, and all persons desiring to bid for the carpenter and plastering work will please observe the notice in another column.”
That same edition of the Union contained the following advertisement:
“Notice to Contractors Sealed bids will be received by the building committee of the Catholic Church in the Village of Vermillion up to May 25th, 1882, for the carpenter and mason work, either together or separate, on the church. Plans and specifications can be seen by application to Joseph Sausen in the Village of Vermillion. The committee reserves to itself the right to reject any and all bids.
Construction began in the spring of 1882 on the northeast corner of a 4 1/2-acre plot of land donated by Mrs. Magdalene Heinen, who had purchased it from her son-in-law, Nicholas Klotz. The church was built near where the current school is located.
On Aug. 30, 1882, the Hastings Union reported that “the new Catholic Church at Vermillion is ready to brick up by the contractor, Henry Durr.” Three months later, on Nov. 7, the Union said that “Charles Metzger will have the brick work of the new Roman Catholic Church at Vermillion completed in about two weeks, and H.L. Durr the woodwork at the same time. The job thus far is pronounced a good one.”
Durr, who had three fingers on his right hand sawn off in an accident in December 1879 while working in the Libbey saw mill in Hastings, was a multitalented individual. Besides designing and building churches and teaching school, he ran for the state Legislature in 1886 and sold maps to inhabitants of the Dakotas in 1887. He also was paid $20 for refurbishing and repainting the District #35 schoolhouse in 1892. Durr was paid $50 a month for teaching school for five or six months a year.
Earlier parish historians said the cornerstone for the new church was inserted quietly and without ceremony in the bricks above the front door on May 10, 1882. Based on the news items published in the Hastings Union, that date appears to be incorrect because the brick work didn’t begin until the end of August. Regardless of the date of its placement, the cornerstone was in fact a discarded footstone, a simple slab of white marble, with the inscription, “A.D. 1882,” carved in its surface. It was donated by Johann Therres and today can be found on the east side of church, resting under the large statue of Mary holding Jesus’ body after He was taken down from the cross.
The 60-by-30 foot church structure, built by hand and horse labor, was completed in the winter of 1883. It had Gothic-style windows, two in the front and five on either side, with a small rose-shaped window tucked over the cornerstone above the front entrance. The ceilings were 20 feet high. A simple but elegant wooden cross was placed in the gable over the front entrance. The brick-veneered walls were built of kiln-run, yellow Chaska bricks. Although there was no basement, a hole-like cellar beneath the floor in later years housed an air-circulating furnace. There also was a loft for the organist and choir. A sanctuary extended 20 feet southward, while a 20-by-16 foot sacristy was attached to the east side. The sacristy also had an east door and was used as a chapel
An altar builder from St. Paul constructed the high altar for $400; a local carpenter built the two side altars. Total cost of the church, plus additions, was less that $4,000.
Now that their church was nearly completed, it needed a pastor. A committee comprised of Nicholaus Klotz, Joseph Sausen and a third unidentified man visited Bishop Grace in St. Paul to ask that he send them a pastor. The bishop, totally surprised and undoubtedly somewhat angry that a church had been built in Vermillion without either his knowledge or consent, informed the trio that since they had built on their own, they also could find a pastor on their own.
While that news must have been extremely disappointing for those behind the church movement, they remained undaunted. A second committee consisting of E. M. Wallerius and V. F. Rother was appointed shortly after Bishop Grace resigned in 1884 to discuss the pastoral appointment with his successor, Bishop John Ireland. Although Bishop Ireland didn’t send the Vermillion parishioners a pastor as requested, he did promise to have the pastor of St. Mary’s Church in New Trier hold Mass in their new church every other Sunday. Ironically, the pastor at St. Mary’s was Father Koering, the same priest who denied Vermillion residents permission to build the church. It wasn’t exactly what they had in mind, of course, but it was an improvement over Bishop Grace’s refusal to provide even a part-time priest.
In the meantime, parishioners were busy working on an important addition to their yet unfinished church: a bell. Since musical bells, or carillons, were developed in the Low Countries of Europe, the Luxembourgers around Vermillion felt an irresistible compulsion to satisfy their affinity for bells. Mrs. Elizabeth Langenfeld was in charge of collecting donations.
Because adding a steeple to the structure would have been challenging and expensive, the church was constructed without one. Instead, a wooden bell tower was erected just northeast of the church building. A bell weighing about 500 pounds was purchased from the McShane Bell Co. in Baltimore, Maryland. Named St. John, the new bell was hung in the tower. When the current church was constructed, St. John was removed and today rings out its messages of joy and sadness from the steeple of St. John’s Church.
“The new German Catholic Church at Vermillion Village is now completed, excepting the pews, and the first religious services will be held by Father Goering, of New Trier, at 10:30 o’clock the last Sunday of this month,” the Hastings Union reported in its Jan. 10, 1883, edition. The newspaper misspelled Father Koering’s name.
The Feb. 7 edition of the Hastings Gazette reported that the “first Mass at the new church in Vermillion was celebrated last Sunday, the Rev. Gregory Koering officiating. The brass band from that village was also present, besides a large choir, and the services were largely attended.”
Father Koering, who was paid $20 to say Mass every other Sunday, dedicated the church on March 11, 1883. Church historians report that a great downpour washed out all chances that the event would be more than a small ceremony.
At this point, the new church was referred to as “the German Catholic Church in Vermillion.” It needed a name — and the parish needed money to help pay off construction debts and cover the cost of a new bell. Parishioners John Brochman and John Zeien concocted a novel plan to address both problems: charge parishioners 25 cents per ballot to vote for their favorite name. Mrs. Elizabeth Langenfeld was in charge of collecting the donations.
The March 17, 1883, issue of the Hastings Gazette summarized the unique naming process. “There was a very large attendance at the new church in Vermillion, last Sunday, the Rev. Gregory Koering officiating. High Mass was celebrated and the singing by the choir pronounced excellent. Balloting was had upon a name, at twenty five cents per vote, with the following results:
“St. John’s 312
“St. Nicholas 301
“St. Jacob’s 165
“So the church will hereafter be known as St. John’s, and the money ($205.25) is to be applied to the building indebtedness.”
The May 16, 1883, Hastings Gazette reported that the debt from the construction of the new church “has been reduced to about $800.”
St. John’s parishioners tolerated this every-other Sunday routine for three years, then decided to seek Father Koering’s blessing to build a rectory as a means to attract a full-time pastor. Not only did Father Koering again object, he also refused to call a parish meeting to discuss the matter. Disheartened parishioners, again electing to bend the rules rather than bow to what seemed to them like clearly unreasonable opposition, called a meeting without their part-time pastor.
During the meeting, Father Koering was called in, but he left before the meeting ended. Church members continued without him, finally deciding to build a rectory without his permission. John N. Thurmes, a carpenter and church member, was hired to do the work. (Thurmes later moved to Fairfax, Minn., but the move probably had little, if anything, to do with Father Koering’s reaction to the parish’s persistent recalcitrance.) A two-story, eight-room (there was no basement) brick veneered rectory soon was finished. The rectory was built east of the church, near where the Stein Haus now stands. Materials cost $450, labor $250.
Again, St. John’s parishioners were punished for their independent spirit; because the rectory had been built without permission, diocesan officials made them wait another five years before they sent a full-time pastor. During this period, Father Koering used the new rectory as sleeping quarters on the Saturday nights before he said Sunday Mass.
According to parish minutes, the parish was incorporated on Dec. 14, 1888, and recorded in the Dakota County Courthouse in Hastings.
Sometime during 1891, persistent parishioners again sent experienced negotiators E. N. Wallerius and V. F. Rother to meet with now-Archbishop Ireland in St. Paul to repeat their request for a full-time resident pastor. This time, the parish’s appeal was successful; the Rev. Father J. J. Jacobs arrived in the village on Dec. 24, 1891.
The following day was truly a joyous occasion for these pioneering Vermillionites. After years of struggle and repeated frustrations, they finally were able to celebrate both their first Christmas Mass and their first Mass with their new resident pastor.
Father Jacobs served the parish for nearly five years, leaving in August 1896. He was succeeded by Father Aloys Heller, who remained in Vermillion for only about two months.
Father Heller was replaced by Father Gottfried Braun, who, it turned out, left a permanent mark on the parish. In 1897, he made the first improvement since the new rectory had been built 11 years earlier. He had the sacristy bricked on the outside and plastered on the inside. He also had a partition removed in the rectory to make one large room out of two small rooms and then had a one-story addition built onto the south end of the rectory, creating two rooms, a kitchen and bath and storage room. In addition, Father Braun had a small cellar dug and a trap door from the kitchen installed. He also enclosed the church and rectory grounds with an iron fence, replacing a wooden structure.
Father Braun loved the people of Vermillion and wanted to be buried in the church cemetery, so he had workmen erect a 10-foot-high crucifix on the cemetery and had a vault built for his earthly remains. Always in delicate health, Father Braun was a firm believer in a water healing method developed in Germany by Father Sabastian Kneipp. Although Kneipp died in 1897, his water-cure technique still is respected and used today by German doctors.
In April 1899, Father Braun took a temporary leave from St. John’s so he could travel to Europe to obtain a Ph.D. in theology and undergo Father Kneipp’s water cure at a Catholic hospital. During his absence, Father P. Boniface from St. Boniface Church in Hastings took care of the parish.
Unfortunately, while in Europe, Father Braun’s health, which initially seemed to improve, suddenly began to deteriorate quickly. He died in Schwelen, Germany, on Dec. 20, 1899, and was buried there. Newspapers at the time described him as a “well-known and much esteemed priest of the archdiocese of St. Paul,” a “commanding figure among the priests of the diocese” and a “man of refinement and gentleness, a scholar of unusual resources and a preacher of recognized ability.” Father Braun’s expertise obviously extended beyond religion: Shortly before he left Vermillion for Europe, he delivered a lecture on farming to a large group at the District 105 schoolhouse next to the church.
Father Braun’s iron crucifix eventually rusted and was removed and buried in the concrete floor of the new school when it was built in 1957. However, his unused vault remains. It is located in the driveway in the cemetery near V. F. Rother’s tombstone.
Father William Lette became the next pastor, serving the parish from 1899 until 1901, when he was forced to retire because of failing health.
St. John’s pastoral situation remained unsettled during the following year, with different priests serving the parish on Sundays and Father John Mies of Miesville taking care of spiritual and temporal needs during the week.
In January 1902, the Rev. Father Pius Schmid was appointed pastor. During his tenure, many new articles were purchased, including a new high altar and new side altars. The high altar later was moved to the new church and served there until 1930, while one of the side altars was used in the chapel of the present church until 1995, when the chapel was converted into the school/parish library. The altar, which now is in several pieces, is currently being stored in the old coal room in the church basement.
St. John’s Cemetery was organized in January 1904 with the following rules adopted: “No one is to use lots only according to the rules and regulations found on the deed. And before anyone is entitled to buy a lot or grave, he must have all debts paid which he may owe the church. The price for graves (single) for children is $3.00, for grown person $5.00. The price for lots 12×20 is $18.00. The price for lots 12×16 is $15.00. The other lots according to size. All cultivated lots are $1 extra. Grave-digging must be paid by the owner of lot or grave.”
Rev. Pius Schmid, V.P.
Recorded by Henry Rother, Treasurer.
In 1905, parishioners donated $415.70 to purchase the Crucifixion scene, which today continues to serve as the focal point in the church cemetery
On June 24, 1907, the feast day of St. John the Baptist, the parish celebrated its 25th anniversary. A High Mass was sung by Father Schmid; Father Robert Schlinkert preached the sermon. Toward the end of his service, Father Schmid began planning for a new church, but, finding little enthusiasm among parishioners, gave up in disgust and retired on July 23, 1911, after 40 years in the priesthood.
Father Antony Kaesen: A leader with vision and iron determination
This is the second of three chapters on the history of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Vermillion, MN. It was taken from a book commemorating the church’s 125th birthday in 2007.
July 21, 1911, remains an auspicious day in the history of the parish, for it was on that day that Father Antony Kaesen, the newly appointed pastor, arrived in the village. Actually, Father Kaesen got lost several times and didn’t reach Vermillion until about 9 p.m. that evening, driving his first automobile, a sporty Warren-Detroit equipped with only one bench seat. A 1910 model, it had neither a top nor side doors, but it did have a horn powered by air squeezed from a rubber bulb and brass-plated acetylene headlights that had to be lit with a match.
The young priest brought along his young niece, the late Sister Anthony Nurnberg, O.S.B., who later became a teacher at St. Bernard’s parish in St. Paul and, much later, a sixth grade teacher at St. Boniface School in Hastings. Although less than five feet tall, Sister Anthony ruled her classrooms with an iron fist. Father also brought along his little white Spitz dog. The auto, of course, made a big hit with villagers because there was only one other such vehicle in the entire parish. It belonged to J.J. Gergen.
Father later reported that, as he stepped from his car, he looked at the small village with a feeling that it was going to be his home for a long time. While the premonition proved prophetic, it’s a safe bet that not even Father Kaesen had any notion of the progress and improvements in this little parish that would occur under his guiding hands.
The new pastor, a young man of 36 with a modern automobile, became an instant hit in Vermillion. The first Monday after his arrival, carpenters were busy building a garage for his Warren-Detroit, signifying a cooperative spirit that enabled pastor and parishioners to accomplish remarkable things over the years. Father Kaesen’s first announcement frequent confessions was a welcome break from the past when parishioners were lucky to be able to receive the sacrament more than two or three times a year. Father Kaesen, a deeply devout man, also began the practice of having parishioners spend additional time for thanksgiving after receiving Holy Communion.
After years of spending relatively little on repairs, the parish was in sound financial condition, with about $8,000 on hand. The young pastor began using some of this money to repair the run-down rectory. It was painted inside and out. The entrance was overhauled. Carpet was laid. But, since Father was sent to Vermillion with orders to build a new church, none of the parish’s money was spent on fixing up the old one.
Nothing was done in this regard for nearly 18 months. Then, after the second Mass on Christmas Day 1912, the parish held its first meeting to discuss the construction of a new church. For his part, Father Kaesen simply pointed out the obvious: the parish indeed was in need of a new “House of God and Gate to Heaven.”
After considerable discussion, parishioners approved a motion to build a new church that would seat 500 worshippers and cost about $30,000. Father Kaesen was instructed to appoint a seven-member building committee. Those attending the meeting also decided to build the church on the north side of the main street, on 1.16 acres of land that would be donated by Aloys (Louis) and Christina Girgen, Norbert Girgen’s grandparents.
However, general parish opinion differed as to the best location for the new church. The question finally was submitted to Archbishop Ireland, who picked the Girgen building site. By that time, it was decided to add eight additional members to the building committee, bringing the total to 15. They were: Nicholaus Werner, Theodore Kasel, Henry Rother, Joseph Girgen, Joseph Wagner, John Wiederhold, V. F. Rother, J.J. Gergen, J.P. Reuter, J.P. Stoffel, J.P. Brochman, Joseph Niederprim, Michael Holzemer, J.N. Girgen and Mathias Marschall. Theodore Kasel and Nicholaus Werner were church trustees during the church’s construction. A project of such proportions caused more that a mild case of anxiety among parishioners. Some were overheard complaining that “the new church is so large and expensive that we will not see the debt paid off during our lifetime and our grandchildren will have to pay for it.” Some members, who were extremely upset with the building project, left St. John’s and joined parishes in Hampton and Hastings.
The majority, fortunately, remained undaunted. Valentine Cordella of Minneapolis was hired as architect; contractor Edward Hirt of St. Cloud was the low bidder for the actual construction. Father Kaesen was appointed official superintendent. To say that he performed his task diligently would be a gross understatement: Father Kaesen was a meticulous perfectionist, demanding that all work done on his beloved church meet the highest construction standards.
The Girgens deeded the land for the church on March 14, 1913, and excavation began on April 27, immediately after the official groundbreaking and blessing ceremonies. During the construction, more than 1,000 loads of gravel and 700 loads of sand and brick were hauled to the site by man and horsepower. Loads of common brick were brought from Chaska by the Milwaukee Road Railroad, the face brick from Menomonie, Wis. The 12 steps leading up to the main floor attest to the fact that excavating with horsepower was a tedious, difficult task. Mrs. John N. Werner, the former Mary “Mamie” Giefer, explained that, as work dragged on, those digging the basement often would run short of teams. When that happened, they’d call upon her father-in-law, Nicholaus Werner, one of the church trustees, or Theodore Kasel, the other trustee, to bring their teams in to help. “It got to the point,” she said, “that my father-in-law was beginning to wonder if the honor of being church trustee was worth it.” Finally, farmers of the parish, weary of digging, announced that they had had enough, exclaiming, “Build the church!”
Throughout the construction phase, Father Kaesen, a dedicated amateur photographer, took weekly progress photos.
One of the greatest, most satisfying days in the history of Vermillion occurred on Sept. 14, 1913, when the cornerstone for the new church was laid. With more than 2,000 persons present, Msgr. Joseph Guillot of Minneapolis blessed the stone, Father Peter Jung of St. Paul preached the sermon in German and Father Patrick Cunningham of Hastings preached it in English. Every Catholic society in neighboring parishes participated in the event. J. J. Gergen’s band furnished the music. Automobiles that had brought visitors from the surrounding area to Vermillion lined the street for blocks on both sides of the church. A large tent was erected nearby so that the ladies of the parish could serve dinner to more than 1,000 people who attended the festivities.
On Aug. 13, 1914, Father Patrick Cunningham blessed the new $975 bell purchased by the Christian Mothers (today’s St. Anne’s Society). Cast by the McShane Bell Co. of Baltimore, Maryland, the bell weighed 2,635 pounds; the rigging boosted the weight to 3,000 pounds. During the blessing ceremony, Mrs. Mary Margaret Marschall had the honor of serving as the bell’s “godmother.” Decorated with red flowers, the bell was blessed with Holy Water, anointed with Holy Oil and Chrism, then named St. Anna. Eventually, workmen carefully hoisted the old bell, St. John, and the new bell, St. Anna, into the steeple of the new church. About 2,000 people were present for the blessing ceremony. Both bells continue to ring today from their lofty home in the church steeple.
The St. John’s Men’s Society bought a statue of St. John the Baptist, which had been carved in Italy of Carrara marble, and had it placed in the prepared niche in front of the church tower, high above the entryway. After the blessing and hoisting ceremonies, the ladies of the parish served dinner and supper in the new church’s basement.
The new church was blessed and dedicated on Aug. 30, 1914, by the Right Rev. J. J. Lawler, the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The church choir, under the direction of V. F. Rother, sang Leonard’s Mass in E flat for the Solemn High Mass. During an impressive and highly significant ceremony, Father Kaesen carried the Blessed Sacrament from the old church to the new one. Additional music for the festivities was provided by the newly-formed Hastings Brass Band. About 3,000 people attended the event, with many later moving to the church basement for another “bountiful” meal served by the ladies of the congregation.
Without question, St. John’s remains one of the most beautiful church buildings in the state. The magnificent stained glass windows, framed by grand arches, were designed by a German artist, R.T. Giles, and painted by his wife. After the artwork was completed, the windows were fired. Soft sunlight filtering through the huge windows in the early morning or late afternoon mixes with various colors from the walls to create a soothing, spiritual atmosphere. There are 16 paintings in the Sanctuary: the Seven Sacraments, the Annunciation, the Ascension, the life of John the Baptist and various paintings of angels. Painted on canvas in 1910 by a German artist in Milwaukee, Wis., they were acquired by Father Kaesen for the church after it was built. The paintings were cut to fit inside the plaster moldings on the walls and then pasted to the plaster walls. The intricate stenciling in the church was designed and painted by Carl Olsen.
The painting of the Holy Eucharist was donated by the communion class of 1919. Father Kaesen was a great admirer of angels, which is why they can be found throughout the church — in stained glass, on canvas, carved out of wood, on the side altars, on the high altar, above the tabernacle and on its doors, on the communion railing, in statutes and on the escutcheon plates on the doors.
Another eye-catching feature in the church is the magnificent high altar, which was purchased and installed in 1930. A work of art, it was crafted out of wood, much of it carved, and includes marble, statuary and guilding.
The church building itself cost $36,000. The altars, pews, communion rail and other fixtures boosted the total cost to $60,000. Despite those grave financial concerns expressed during the planning stages, the entire church debt was paid off in the next six years, a remarkable testimony to a parish generosity that flourishes even today.
About four years after the joyous dedication, World War I broke out, causing both great sadness and sickness. Spanish influenza, carried by soldiers from Europe to America, swept through the village, killing several parishioners. Archbishop Ireland, one of the most beloved and influential Catholic leaders in the U.S. church history and the person who provided St. John’s with its first priest, died of age-related causes on Sept. 30, 1918, adding more unhappiness to the gloomy year.
On Jan. 14, 1923, a meeting was held to discuss the building of a new rectory. The vote to build was relatively close: 48 in favor, 40 against. Nicholaus Wagner, a contractor from Austin, was the low bidder. Parish members razed the old church, painstakingly saving both bricks and the splendid lumber for use in the new rectory. Ground was blessed and broken on May 1, 1923. The structure was double bricked, with used brick from the old church laid on the inside wall, new brick on the outside. The rectory was completed on Dec. 7, 1923, and Father Kaesen moved from the old rectory across the street to the new one on December 12. Total cost was about $17,000.
In 1930, a new high altar was purchased and installed, fulfilling one of Father Kaesen’s dreams. When the new church was completed in 1914, the altar from the old church was moved to the new church. Father thought the old altar was too small and didn’t do the new church justice. So when parishioners and Father Kaesen realized that the first priest from the parish — Father Harold Fuchs, O.S.B. — was going to be ordained and would say his first Mass at his home parish, they agreed it was time to replace the old altar with one “more in scale with our beautiful church building.”
On Sept. 15, 1929, Father Kaesen announced that the new altar, which was ordered from Germany, would cost $3,435 and would be financed as follows: $1,135 on hand from the bazaar, $500 donation from one unnamed person, $600 from parish funds and a $1,200 loan from St. Anne’s Society. On Oct. 29, 1929, the stock market collapsed on a day that became known as Black Friday. Plummeting stock prices ignited the Great Depression. Money was scarce and times were tough. Millions lost their jobs and people across the nation joined long soup lines, patiently waiting for a government-funded meal. Despite the dire times, six parishioners — Mrs. Mary Gergen, Theodore Kasel, Mrs. Josephine Mueller, Nicholas Ries, William Werner and Mrs. Susan Wollmering — donated six large gold/marble cathedral-type candlesticks for the new altar. On May 5, 1930, the St. John Society donated $125 for a gold/marble cross/crucifix to match the candlesticks, completing the altar ensemble.
The blessing ceremony was held on June 8, with Father Fuchs performing the honors. The Solemn High Mass that Father Fuchs sung immediately after the blessing was the first offered on the altar and also was Father Fuchs’ first Mass.
The old altar, which was made from butternut and had served the parish for 30 years, was sold to a church in Wahkon, Minn., a small community on the southeast shore of Mille Lacs Lake. Large crowds of parishioners attended 40 Hours Devotion held on the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday during the second week of lent in 1930. The closing included the Eucharistic procession around the church and Solemn Benediction. A number of neighboring clergymen assisted Father Kaesen.
On Dec. 23, 1930, Louis and Christina Girgen donated another one-third of an acre of land to the church. Because the rectory on the east side of the church was built in 1923, it’s likely the Girgens’ second donation involved the parcel of land lying on the north side of the church, where the parish garage now stands.
On Oct. 2, 1932, the parish celebrated its golden jubilee. “During the service, 50 young boys and girls marched in line, one for each year of the church’s existence,” recalled Lawrence Brockman. “Each child wore a golden cape with a date on it. I think I was 1900. It was quite a celebration.”
The Oct. 7, 1932, edition of the Hastings Gazette reported on the celebration. “Much interest was shown in the fact that Father John Mies, formerly pastor at Miesville . . . took the part of the celebrant in the Solemn High Mass Sunday morning. He is the only living priest who served the Vermillion parish in the early days before a regular pastor took charge. (In the previous issue, the Gazette reporter described the early days of the parish as ‘days of struggle and discouragement.’) After the dinner, Father Mies was continually surrounded by former parishioners and friends, who congratulated him on his long service and talked over old times.”
The Gazette article also described the ceremony.
“The 50 children, representing 50 golden years, made a beautiful sight as they advanced into the church. On the right lower part of the cape appeared in black figures the year each child represented.” A week earlier, the newspaper had described the capes as a “golden color.”
According to the Gazette article, which contained some misspellings, the names of the children and the year each represented were as follows:
Gregory Langenfeld — 1882
LeRoy Rother — 1883
Leonard Rother — 1884
Donald Dries — 1885
Richard Stoffel — 1886
Anthony Langenfeld — 1887
George Leifeld — 1888
Arnold Werner — 1889
Harold Raway — 1890
Jack Marschall — 1891
Joseph Leifeld — 1892
Arvine (sic) Frandrup — 1893
Leo Bauer — 1894
Lawrence Rother — 1895
Mathias Siebenaler — 1896
Andrew Bauer — 1897
Herbert Bauer — 1898
Andrew Kieffer — 1899
Lawrence Brockman — 1900
Mathias Thurmes — 1901
Clarence Becker — 1902
Richard Holzemer — 1903
Ambrose Holzemer — 1904
Loedegard (sic) Leifeld — 1905
Jerome Girgen — 1906
Patricia Marschall — 1907
Ritamy (sic) Brown — 1908 (probably Rita May)
Rosemary Rother — 1909
Rosemary Siebenaler — 1910
Irma Marschall — 1911
Elizabeth Marschall — 1912
Magdalena Meier — 1913
Marianne Marschall — 1914
Mary Girgen — 1915
Louise Fasbender — 1916
Louise Stoffel — 1917
Irma Doffing — 1918
Theresa Rother — 1919
Rose Meier — 1920
Dolores Girgen — 1921
Alvina Tutewohl — 1922
Elizabeth Girgen — 1923
Anna Langenfeld — 1924
Juliana Mamer — 1925
Mary Stoffel — 1926
Susana (sic) Bauer — 1927
Loretta Zeien — 1928
Theresa Werner — 1929
Dolores Zeien — 1930
Dorothea Fasbender — 1931
The celebration began at 10:30 a.m. with a procession from the rectory to the church, followed by the Solemn High Mass. Father John Mies was the celebrant. At noon, priests and parishioners moved to the parish hall in the basement, where they were served a meal. Games and amusements were held throughout the afternoon and then supper was served at 5 p.m.
Mrs. J. C. Kummer, president of the St. Anne’s Mothers Society, was in charge of the dinner. Miss Martha Kasel was in charge of serving, Henry Langenfeld was in charge of sports, Mrs. N. H. Marschall and Mrs. L. A. Fasbender were in charge of decorations. Nicholas H. Marschall, V. J. Rother, F. J. Leifeld and Mathias Doffing handled the amusements and Miss Martha Kasel was in charge of the soft drinks. Miss Margaret Marschall was in charge of the 50 children representing the 50 golden years of the parish’s history. “The Parish cleared over $600.00 in the various activities of the day,” the Gazette reported.
The Oct. 7, 1932, Hastings Herald also covered the golden jubilee celebration.
“The golden jubilee celebration held at Vermillion Sunday in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the first Catholic church in the village was a most gratifying success, both socially and financially speaking. St. John’s church was filled to its capacity for the ten-thirty solemn high mass. Many dignitaries of the church from far and near participated in the celebration The church service over, the crowd flocked to the basement where more than five hundred were served chicken dinner. The color scheme in the decoration was gold and white and was carried out to the minutia. Beautifully yellow chrysanthemums trimmed the clergymans (sic) table which was arranged on the stage. Mrs. Ethel Wiederholdt and J.R. St. Germain gave pleasing selections on the piano and banjo during the meals. After dinner the crowd repaired across the street to enjoy the various concessions and sports provided for their entertainment and amusement. Hundreds of people visited the grounds during the day and a jollier, better natured crowd would have been difficult to find. Those in charge of the affair are highly elated at their success and express their thanks and appreciation to all who have in any way assisted.” On Jan. 21, 1932, H.G. Zavoral delivered a lecture in the church basement on conditions in Russia. A large crowd attended. Admission was free.
That same year, three Masses were celebrated every morning during Forty Hours services at St. John’s: a Low Mass at 8 a.m., followed by a second Mass and then a High Mass at 10 a.m. In addition, an evening service was held at 7:30 p.m.
During the summer of 1934, an alert Father Kaesen perhaps prevented the parish from being robbed of about $1,100 in what to this day remains a bizarre and puzzling occurrence. About 11 p.m. Sunday evening, Father’s housekeeper, Miss Margaret Schiltgen, received a call from a man asking that a priest be sent to an accident scene near Miesville. When father picked up the phone, the “informant” said that a car carrying a bishop, his mother, two nuns and a baby had gone into a ditch about a mile west of Miesville. Father asked the man to identify himself. After murmuring several lines, the man said that his name was “Johnson” and that he lived near Miesville. “Why don’t you call Father Duhr (Miesville’s pastor)?” Father asked. “He’s much closer than I am.”
“We can’t get Father Field,” the man replied. This unfamiliarity with Father Duhr’s name convinced an already suspicious Father Kaesen that someone was trying to lure him away from the rectory. Adding to the suspicious nature of the call was the fact that the rectory contained the entire $1,110 in proceeds raised at a parish bazaar/picnic held earlier that day in an effort to raise money to pay for re-roofing the church. In the depths of the Depression, $1,100 was a small fortune.
Father hung up the phone and immediately called Vermillion banker N. H. Marschall. After a brief conference, they decided to divide the money into smaller amounts, place each portion in a cigar box and, while keeping a sharp lookout for bandits, spread the money around in the homes of various members of the parish.
To preclude any chance that the men might enter the rectory and force Father to reveal the whereabouts of the money, parishioners finally convinced him to spend the rest of the night away from the rectory. Although no one can recall, it’s highly likely that Father’s housekeeper, Margaret Schiltgen, was also moved to a safe haven. Meanwhile, men with rifles and Hastings police officer Oscar Stromberg kept watch over the village. During the night, a large car with Michigan license plates zoomed through the village, then turned around and came back through again. No one knew whether the mysterious car had any relationship with the fake phone call, but the person or persons behind the scheme never showed. As far as can be determined, there was never any evidence that an accident had occurred near Miesville that evening.
On June 7, 1938, the second son of the parish to become a priest, Father Antony J. Leifeld, celebrated his first Solemn High Mass in the church.
Rose Rother recalls that she was part of the procession during Father Leifeld’s first Mass. “We started from the rectory and went up to the front of the church, where I was able to see the whole ceremony,” Rother said. “When Father Tony had been in the seminary, during the summer, he and Ray Lucker (later to become Bishop Lucker) taught summer school classes. Sister Anthony, Father Kaesen’s niece, also taught summer school.”
In 1938, the church cemetery was enlarged and the present fence erected by Joseph Marschall, a gifted machinist and one of Father Kaesen’s most trusted right-hand men. During the 1930s, numerous Bingo and card parties were held in the church basement, undoubtedly designed to help divert parishioners’ attention from the Great Depression that refused to release its deadly grip on the nation. In June 1940, 54 pupils were enrolled in the religious summer school being conducted by Father Kaesen in the sub-auditorium of St. John’s Church. Study hours were from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and the course terminated in four weeks, when the older children — four boys and four girls — were admitted to First Communion. Miss Rose Carroll of Rosemount and Miss Irene Hiniker of Hastings assisted Father in teaching the religion class.
“The sewing circle of St. John’s church, Vermillion, had their first meeting last Thursday at the home of Mrs. John Wiederhold, making preparations to get ready quilts and needlework for their annual harvest festival,” the Hastings Gazette reported in its Jan. 26, 1940, edition. “The hostess served a nice lunch. Mrs. L.E. Fasbender entertained the circle Thursday of this week.” Meeting weekly, the women produced a large volume of handiwork that was later sold during the fall festivals, generating significant income and earning praise from Father Kaesen for their skill and hard work.
On Dec. 7, 1941, “a day that will live in infamy,” the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, setting off World War II. Vermillion’s first casualty was George Mamer Jr., son of Mr. and Mrs. George Mamer. He was aboard the heavy cruiser USS Houston, flagship of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet at the time. On March 1, 1942, the Houston was sunk by the Japanese during the Battle of Sunda Strait in the southwestern Pacific. Her survivors were taken prisoners of war and forced to build the Burma-Thai Railway. At the time, it was not known if Mamer died in the sinking or was taken prisoner.
In 1943, the church interior was scrubbed and repainted by the St. Paul Statuary Company. The work was completed by Thanksgiving.
The following year, Vermillion was hit with more bad news from the World War II battlefront. Pfc. Ambrose Holzemer, the son of John Holzemer, drowned in the Aleutian Islands on July 21, 1944. His father received the grim news from the War Department. Memorial services were held on Monday, Sept. 11, at 9:30 a.m. in St. John’s Church. Father Kaesen officiated. Two veterans groups from Hastings, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, participated in honoring the fallen soldier. A full military funeral was held on Oct. 15, 1945. On Jan. 24, 1945, a memorial service was held for PFC. Peter Thurmes, son of Mr. and Mrs. Anton Thurmes, who died in Belgium when an explosive device he was handling accidentally exploded. The American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars took part in the service. Thurmes’ body was buried in a Belgium cemetery.
Four weeks of religious instruction for children of St. John’s ended on a Saturday in mid-July 1945. On Sunday, the children received First Communion at the 8 a.m. High Mass and were confirmed after Mass by Archbishop Murray of St. Paul. He was assisted by a number of visiting priests. Members of the Communion class were Virginia Fasbender, Betty Mae Rother, Leonard Werner, James Cysiewski and Peter Rother. Serving as sponsors for the Confirmation class were Mr. and Mrs. J.W. Werner.
St. John’s parish, which consisted of 75 families at the time, donated 6,261 pounds of canned peas, corn, milk and beans in late December 1945 for the starving people of Europe and the Far East. Father Kaesen sent the collection of 3,700 cans to the Catholic Salvage Bureau in Chicago. Parishioners contributed the cans of food or gave money for the purchase of more cans that made up the shipment. After World War II ended in August 1945, word eventually came from the War Department that George Mamer Jr. had indeed been killed in the sinking of the USS Houston during the first months of the war. He was given a memorial tribute at a Requiem High Mass in mid-January 1946. Following the ceremony, A. F. Schmitz from the American Legion post in Hastings presented the American flag to the deceased sailor’s mother at the Mamer home. A three-week session of religious education summer school ended on a Friday in late June 1947 and a small class of pupils celebrated their Solemn First Communion at the 8 a.m. Mass on Sunday. The children were Jack Brummel, Shirley Brummel, Donald Frandrup and Rita Girgen. Raymond Lucker and Leonard Rother, students at St. Paul Seminary, were the instructors for the class.
Parishioners began discussing the construction of a school in late 1947 and early 1948. A building committee was selected and an architect hired, but talks broke up when a committee member suggested that the post-war inflationary bubble would soon burst and prices eventually fall. Since blueprints already had been drawn, the architect had to be paid. Prices, of course, didn’t drop.
In 1949, a new Wurlitzer electric organ was installed. Religious study clubs also were begun in the parish that year.
In 1950, a play entitled “Our Lady of Fatima,” sponsored by Vermillion’s Our Lady of Fatima Discussion Club, became such a hit that many groups outside the village requested repeat performances. Consequently, parish actors performed their play at Hastings High School, in Red Wing, Lake City and Bellechester.
Club members from Vermillion included Emma and Tilly Bauer, Jack Brummel, Dick and Dwain Kasel, Bernard and Tony Langenfeld, Dorothy Leifeld, Joseph Marschall, Aloys and Ralph Wagner and Joan Suel; Mary Driscoll and John Kingston came from Guardian Angels; Mary Katherine and Joe Kimmes from St. Joseph’s in Miesville; Martin Lucking and Bernadette and Stanley Ficker from St. Mary’s in New Trier, and Rita Meiers and Mary and Art Wollmering from St. Mathias in Hampton.
Club officers were Rev. Antony Kaesen, spiritual advisor; Tony Langenfeld, club leader; Mary Katherine Kimmes, secretary, and Dick Kasel, treasurer.
The cast included Mary Wollmering, Joan Brummel, Jimmy Pohl, Bernard Langenfeld, Joan Suel, Mary Katherine Kimmes, John Kingston, Bernadette Ficker, Mary Driscoll, Tilly Bauer, Dorothy Leifeld, Lucille Fox, Patricia Karnick, Dwain Kasel, Martin Lucking, Mary Jean Kasel, Jack Brummel, Ralph Wagner, Dick Kasel, Stanley Ficker, Henry Fox, Art Wollmering, Aloys Wagner, Joseph Marschall and Dorothy Leifeld. Mary Wollmering, Lucille Fox and Joan Suel provided the selection, Our Lady of Fatima, and Tony Langenfeld, John Kingston and Father Kaesen the welcome and comment.
“In the late ’40s, I was instrumental in starting a young discussion group at St. John’s,” recalled Tony Langenfeld. “Father Kaesen wasn’t too eager to have the group. He wondered what they would talk about and if anyone would come.”
Langenfeld said members attending the first meeting named the group Our Lady of Fatima Discussion Group. After several get-togethers, the group decided to put on the Fatima play Langenfeld first saw at the Catholic Youth Center in St. Paul.
“I directed it at St. John’s,” Langenfeld recalled. “It was very well received at Vermillion and Hastings, and we put the play on in surrounding towns, even to Lake City and New Prague. There was a nice stage in St. John’s basement, with drapes to open and close. One of the scenes began with the drapes closed, then opening slowly on the Blessed Virgin (Mary Driscoll) dressed in white, and Lucy, Jacinta and Francisco kneeling before her with the spotlight on her. The audience was full of awe at the spiritual reality of the scene.”
Langenfeld said the group didn’t charge admission but asked for a free-will offering. “We raised over $600, which we donated to the church to tile the basement floor. Joe Marschall thought that it was great that the young people collected the money, so he got the other church groups to redo the rest of the basement — put in ceiling tile, paint the walls and fix a new kitchen.”
During this time, St. John’s sausage and ham suppers, held in the church basement, became popular events throughout the area.
On June 10, 1951, Father Kaesen celebrated the golden jubilee of his ordination into the priesthood. The actual anniversary was on April 6, 1951, but the event was delayed because Father didn’t want a celebration.
Archbishop John Murray, who was delayed by a previous engagement and missed a large portion of the festivities, arrived early enough to give the blessing. With him was the Very Rev. Hilary Hacker, vicar general of the archdiocese.
Young priests whose lives and vocations had been influenced by Father Kaesen served as officers of the Mass. They were Father Antony Leifeld, who was baptized in 1912 by Father Kaesen, and the Rev. Harold Fuchs, the first boy sent to the priesthood from the parish during Father Kaesen’s time. Rev. Mr. Raymond Lucker, who was ordained a sub-deacon the previous week, served in that capacity for the first time during the Mass. Other priests who attended the festivities included Father P. J. Ryan of Guardian Angels Church in Hastings; Father Lambert, O.S.B., pastor at St. Boniface Church in Hastings; the Very Rev. Lawrence Carey of Rosemount; Father James Furey of Rosemount; Father George Rogan of Farmington; Father Galles from Miesville; Father Heer of Cologne; Father John Wagner of Hastings; Father Rudolph Nolan of Minneapolis and formerly of Hastings; Father Russell of Hazelwood; Father Nicholas Gillen of New Trier, and Father Math Diehl of Wabasso. The golden jubilee bride was Susan Poepl, who is the daughter of Rusty and Mary Jane Fasbender Poepl. Mary Jane served as Father’s silver jubilee bride 25 years earlier. Susan’s maids of honor were Kathleen Kasel, daughter of John W. and Hildegard Kasel, and Diana Kasel, daughter of Jacob and Leona Kasel. The bride on these occasions represents the church to whom the priest is said to be wedded.
About 600 people were served at the jubilee dinner that followed the Solemn High Mass. The dinner was prepared by the women of the parish.
By the time Father celebrated his golden jubilee, he had spent 40 of those years serving parishioners in Vermillion.
In truth, Father Kaesen ruled as much as he served. A short, wiry man who stuffed Copenhagen snuff up his nose, continually puffed on cigars and sucked on F&F cough drops to soothe a periodically ailing throat, Father was a bigger-than-life authority figure who instilled fear in his flock.
“Father didn’t just run the parish, he ran the entire city,” Leo Girgen said. “He kept an eye on Vermillion.”
For instance, if your son or daughter started dating a Lutheran, you could be certain that Father soon would pay a visit to your house to discuss this transgression. Girgen said that Margaret Schiltgen, Father’s long-time housekeeper, served as his eyes and ears and kept him current on parish happenings. When Joe Marschall began building his brick house in Vermillion, the bricklayers first laid bricks on the foundation to determine how to fit them together. Girgen said Father stopped over to check on their work, then hunted down Marschall and told him the entire crew should be fired because they weren’t putting mortar between the bricks. During one particularly dry summer, Father Kaesen asked the Village Council to spread salt on Main Street to control the gravel dust kicked up by auto traffic. When the council refused, Father purchased the salt and spread it on the street himself. An irate resident pointed out to council members that it was a disgrace to the community to force the local pastor to spread salt on the gravel road. Every year after that, the Village Council made certain that Main Street was properly salted.
When the street between the church and the Ben Siebenaler home was constructed, Father was there, making sure the work was done correctly. The street later was named Kaesen Avenue. “Father Kaesen demanded respect and got it,” said Emma Siebenaler.
He didn’t tolerate noise in church, refused to baptize a baby with a non-saint name and required younger school children to sit in the front pews during Mass. Girls sat on the Blessed Virgin side, boys on the St. Joseph side. Margaret Schiltgen, Father’s housekeeper, sat with the boys to make sure they didn’t misbehave.
He wouldn’t allow flowers or other decorations on the altar and wouldn’t permit soliciting in school because he thought it would teach the students to beg, Emma said. He also visited all of his parishioners once a year. Church boundaries were particularly important to him. “Father Kaesen himself measured the distance to Ed and Aggie Deutsch’s farm when they moved in to make sure that they could come to Vermillion,” Emma said. When Leo and Ruth Girgen were first married, they lived on 170th Street and attended St. Boniface Church in Hastings and sent their children to school there.
“When we moved to our farm, about the time Brenda was born, Father Kaesen phoned Father Robert at St. Boniface and told him we now belonged to St. John’s Church,” Girgen said. Father Robert didn’t argue the point.
Families were assigned pews and paid pew rent. The amount varied over the years, but the most common fee was $35 a year. Each pew contained a small metal plaque with the pew holder’s name on it and this is where you sat. If you didn’t pay your rent, the plaque was removed from the pew.
Parents rarely brought their infants or pre-school children to church because, if they made a noise, Father would stop the service and stare at the parents until the offending youngster was removed.
A cough from a parishioner also could prompt Father to halt Mass and stare at the offender. On one occasion, a parishioner sneezed loudly. Father stopped the Mass, turned around and, according to Lawrence Brockman, said, “I wish I had a voice as loud as that one!” If you arrived late for Mass, Father would stop what he was doing and say, “Late for Mass, late to heaven; never to Mass, never to heaven,” Wally Stoffel said.
Emma Siebenaler and her late husband, Bill, had seven children. “Bill was a trustee,” Emma said. “Father Kaesen would call ahead for a trustee meeting to make sure the children wouldn’t be around.” Norbert Girgen said that Father Kaesen “was very strict and mean to the altar boys, so my dad would not let me be a server.”
When Norbert’s dad, Louie, was an altar boy, he would get to church quickly by walking across a small footbridge that crossed the river north of Vermillion. One spring during Holy Week, the river flooded and washed away the little bridge. Norbert said his dad was forced to walk the long way on the road to get to Mass. “Father was very angry with him for being late and he wouldn’t let him forget it for a long time,” Norbert said.
Punishment back then was often swift and severe. On one occasion, Leo Girgen and Connie Thurmes were goofing around during a school event in the church basement. Father didn’t see Leo instigate the horsing around, but he did spot Connie responding. Like a cat swinging a paw at a passing bird, Father hit Connie on the side of his head, knocking it into one of the posts supporting the church floor.
Norbert Girgen also felt Father’s sting. “Older kids in school would pick on me and tease me by taking my cap and tossing it around,” Norbert explained. “I was reaching for it when Father Kaesen hit me on the side of the head. ‘When I’m talking, you pay attention to me,’ ” Girgen recalls Father telling him.
Because students attended public school back then, Father would teach a six-week religion course at the beginning of summer vacation. Classes lasted from 9 a.m. to noon, Monday through Friday. “My parents lived in Illinois when we were young and moved to Vermillion in 1941,” Rosie Loesch recalled. “My brothers and I received First Communion and Confirmation in Illinois before we moved. Father Kaesen came to my mother, Bertha, and told her that the kids should still go to religion classes. However, Father then expected the Loesch kids to know all the answers and picked on us a lot when we were wrong.”
Rosie said that she and her brother Jack were too scared to go to class, so one morning they sat on the little step in the basement outside the chapel until the Angelus bell rang, informing them that class was over.
“We quickly slipped up the stairs and walked out with the other kids,” Rosie explained. “However, Father Kaesen came to our house and asked where we had been. We got a whipping for that prank. After that, I would walk on the opposite side of the street whenever I saw Father was out walking.”
Rosie also remembers Jerry Frandrup falling asleep in religion class one morning. “Father came up to him and really whacked him on the side of his head with a bible,” she said. “Jerry sat up so quickly, not knowing what was going on.”
Lawrence Brockman said that students in religion class who knew their lessons were okay, but “if you didn’t know the answers, Father would hit you on both sides of your head.”
Brockman said Father also picked on some kids. For instance, he called Norbert Stoffel, who was the oldest student in class, “grandpa.”
“Father was very intellectual and talked over our heads,” Brockman added. “He never came down to our level.” The late Joe Siebenaler said Father often lectured the students on astronomy. Jim Cysiewski, who lived in the old Ries home on the east side of Kieffer’s when he was a youngster, often served Mass for Father because he lived so close to church. During the winter months, Cysiewski was in charge of starting the fire in the furnace to warm the chapel.
“There was wood stored in the small east room in the basement,” he said, “Father would be upset if I forgot or overslept.”
But Cysiewski said that, once a year, Father would reward the altar boys — he, Joe Marschall, Joe Therres and Leonard Rother — by taking them to a ball game in the Twin Cities.
For years after Father’s death, parishioners would remain in church for a few extra minutes after Mass ended. Rosie Loesch credits Father for initiating the tradition.
“My mother told me, in earlier times, when couples would come to town, the women would go to the store for supplies and the men would head for the bars,” Rosie said. “Eventually, the men were so thirsty that, on Sundays during Mass, as soon as the men received Communion, they would leave church and head for the bars.”
It didn’t take long for Father to figure out what was going on. “After a few times, when Father saw them leave, he would leave the altar and rush out the side door to get them back in to finish the service,” she said. After he dragged the men back into church a few times, he demanded that everyone stay in their pews a few minutes after Mass had ended. Even today, some parishioners remain kneeling for a few minutes after Mass ends. Kathleen Leifeld said Father Kaesen “was a very holy and well-educated priest who really stuck up for what was right and against what was wrong.”
On one festive occasion, Kathleen was helping other parishioners set up tables, chairs and other decorations in the church basement. “I moved Mary’s statue to a spot where it would cover up a large crack in the wall. Father was very firm in telling me, ‘You shouldn’t use the Blessed Virgin Mary to cover up a crack!’ as he moved the statue back to its original spot.”
Erma Rother said her daughters attended Wednesday evening religion classes. “Our daughter Pat started working at Smead’s after school in the evenings, so when Father Kaesen found out she wasn’t attending religion, he called Smead’s and told them she had to go to religion classes on Wednesdays. So Smead’s left her off to go to class without firing her,” Rother said.
Jack Brummel remembers that Father always walked around and around the church and rectory, saying his breviary. “He always wore his cassock and biretta everywhere. I never saw him in civilian clothes,” Brummel said.
“He would always say a prayer to St. Christopher before driving anywhere, and he had black driving gloves that he always wore when driving,” Brummel added.
According to Jim Cysiewski, Father for a time owned a parrot with a penchant for salty language.
In the early 1940s, Father temporarily “adopted” four children, whose parents died unexpectedly four years apart.
Vincent H. and Cecelia Rother were married on April 29, 1926, in St. Paul and lived in the old red brick house about two miles east of Vermillion. They had four children: Bernard, James, Olivia and Peter. The country was in the midst of the Great Depression and living conditions were extremely difficult for the family. Then in March 1938, Vincent, who was 58, came down with what was believed to be the flu. He was treated at St. Raphael’s Hospital in Hastings for 15 days, then returned home. But by the end of May, his health worsened and he died at home in mid-June.
Following her husband’s death, Cecelia and her children moved from the farm to a house in the city of Vermillion. In late 1941, Cecelia began to experience heart problems. The children’s uncle, Frank Rother, a retired farmer, was given guardianship over them on Feb. 20, 1942. Cecelia died suddenly in her home in late November 1942. She was only 43. At the time, Bernard was 14, James was 12, Olivia was 11 and Peter was 10.
Frank Rother and Father Kaesen were given joint guardianship over the children on Dec. 12, 1942, and the youngsters moved into the old rectory across the street from the church. The old building was very cold and drafty. It was a difficult time for the priest and the children. Father Kaesen had little patience with youngsters and the children suddenly were thrust into a strange house and governed by a tough little clergyman who ruled with two iron fists. Amazingly, both the children and Father survived the challenges.
Frank Rother was discharged from his guardianship responsibilities on Feb. 8, 1945. Father’s guardianship over Bernard ended on Sept. 23, 1948. He continued serving as guardian over the other three until June 26, 1953.
Bernard Rother later attended a monastery but never became a monk. He died in 1994. Olivia attended Good Counsel with Monica Leifeld and Irma Marschall. James attended St. John’s in Collegeville with Joseph Marschall. Peter graduated from St. John’s University with a B.A. in physics and chemistry, married and had four children, including a son who died in infancy, and retired from 3M after a 34-year career. Peter died in November 2008 at age 77.
In 1951, a new heating system was installed in the church. Then, in 1954, the sub-auditorium was extensively remodeled, including the addition of a new kitchen, new ceiling and improvements to the basement chapel. A few months later, the entire basement floor was covered with asphalt tile. Jacob Bauer, a church member, served as head carpenter.
On June 5, 1955, Father Harold Fuchs came home to celebrate the silver jubilee of his ordination.
In 1956, parishioners again began discussing the possibility of building and operating their own parochial school. A building committee comprised of Father Kaesen, John Ries, William Siebenaler, Joseph Siebenaler, Joseph Marschall, F.J. Poepl, Jacob Bauer and Anthony Lucking began looking into the project. In the ensuing months of discussion and planning, the committee at first examined a four-room school, then considered a full basement, which could be used for storage and school-related events.
Eventually, the present configuration was chosen. Work began in 1957, with many parishioners donating generous amounts of both labor and equipment toward the actual construction. Joseph Marschall put his knowledge of steel to use and designed a sturdy but relatively inexpensive roof. Joe Siebenaler did the bulk of the welding.
The school building was completed in 1958 for $100,000. The parish, again demonstrating its generosity, quickly paid off the debt. The building was used as a local District 200 public school for one year before Father Kaesen was able to staff it with sisters from the Sisters of Notre Dame Mother House in Mankato. In 1959, the same building committee began planning the construction of a parish convent for the school sisters. This time, Leonard Bauer Construction Co. of Hastings was hired to do the work. At the time, Bauer was a member of the parish. The completed convent cost $56,000.
Bishop Cowley arrived on Aug. 2, 1959, to bless both the new school and convent. A few days later, Sister Gerardine, the new principal, arrived from Mankato. She was accompanied by Sister M. de Cruce and Sister Nerina.
About this time, Father Kaesen began work on his final improvement projects, which included installing a new boiler in the church, re-pointing the brick exterior of the church and re-leading and making general repairs to the church’s beautiful stained glass windows.
On June 11, 1961, Father Kaesen celebrated a momentous event, his diamond jubilee as a priest and his golden anniversary as the pastor of St. John’s. The grand celebration began with a special Mass in the morning, followed in the afternoon by a dinner served by the ladies of the parish, and ending in the evening with a highly entertaining program.
A few months later, on August 16, Father sent his housekeeper, Margaret Schiltgen, to the hospital when he accidentally pinned her to the garage door with his car.
The two were leaving the rectory to visit relatives at a cottage in Wisconsin, 70 miles away. The cottage was owned by Father’s two nephews.
Father backed his car out of the garage and his housekeeper shut the garage doors. Father’s car had an automatic transmission. He told authorities that he had the car in reverse at the time but thought it might have slipped into low when he reached over to close the car door.
To his surprise, the car suddenly leaped forward and the bumper struck Margaret in the back of her knees, pinning her to the door.
Father immediately backed up the car and rushed to Margaret’s aid. Neighbors came and applied ice to her right leg, which had become quite swollen by then. However, the swelling quickly subsided and Margaret was able to take a few steps. She said she was feeling much better and wanted to continue their trip. During the drive, Margaret became nauseated and felt shock. Later that evening, Father decided that it would be prudent to seek medical care, so he drove Margaret from the cottage to Hastings Memorial Hospital. An x-ray revealed a cracked bone in her left leg and it was placed in a cast. Her right leg was severely bruised. Margaret eventually fully recovered from the incident.
Although into his mid-80’s by this time, Father Kaesen still had a rather heavy foot when it came to driving. According to a former Hastings police chief, the late Ben Laski, Father Kaesen was stopped for speeding on Co. Rd. 47 in the Westwood area of Hastings and given a ticket. He later appeared in court, but instead of entering a plea, he delivered a blistering sermon on the morality of setting up a “speed trap” in such a sparsely populated area. Charges were dropped.
The old rectory, built in 1886 in hopes of attracting a full-time pastor, was torn down during the summer of 1963. The building sat empty for the first five years and was replaced in 1923 by the current rectory. Since 1923, the parish rented the old rectory to various families. John H. Brummel was hired to do the demolition. On Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was gunned down by an assassin in Dallas, the church bells in Vermillion tolled, sending the sad news across the countryside. On Sunday, November 25, Father Kaesen offered a Requiem High Mass for President Kennedy’s soul. Most of the parish was in attendance.
March 12, 1965, was a sad day indeed for St. John’s parishioners. Father Kaesen, who had been apriest for 64 years and pastor of St. John’s for 54 years, died at age 90. He had been in ill health for months, and died in Regina Memorial Hospital in Hastings.
“Father was not easy,” Lawrence Brockman said, “but he accomplished a lot and helped make St. John’s a good parish.”
Rosie Loesch said her mother Bertha visited Father when he was quite ill. “His words to her are still good advice today,” Rosie said: ‘Don’t wait until you’re dying to pray.’ ”
Lenora Ries says that the night before he died, Father Kaesen requested that her husband, John, a church trustee, come to the hospital to see him. “When John arrived, Father made John promise that there would be NO trees planted in the cemetery,” she said. John fulfilled his promise.
On the following Tuesday, Archbishop Leo Binz officiated at the Solemn Pontifical Requiem Mass. This was the first time in the area, and the first time at St. John’s, that new English liturgy was used. Not surprisingly, the funeral was the largest ever held in Vermillion, with many friends and former residents from neighboring parishes returning to pay their last respects.
Father Nicholas Gillen, pastor of St. Francis de Sales Church in St. Paul and formerly pastor at St. Mary’s Church in New Trier, served as arch-priest. Father Antony Leifeld from the New Ulm diocese and who was from Vermillion, served as deacon. Father James Dunne, chaplain at Regina Memorial Hospital in Hastings and who ministered to Father Kaesen for the last several years of his life, was sub-deacon. Deacons of honor were Father James Furey of St. Joseph’s Church in Rosemount and Father Gerard Rowan of St. Mathias Church in Hampton. Father Rowan was chaplain to the sisters at St. John’s School. Father Stephen Adrian from the New Ulm Diocese was preacher.
The Priests’ Choir, under the direction of Father John Sweeney, provided the music. Father Sweeney was a professor of music at the St. Paul Seminary and later became highly renowned for his skill in shaping church choirs throughout the diocese.
Father Leifeld, who was baptized by Father Kaesen and had his first Mass at St. John’s, officiated at graveside services in the church cemetery.
“In 1964, I had been elected president of St. Anne’s, so when Father died, I was in charge of the meal,” said Erma Rother. “I was scared stiff, not knowing how to handle such a large doings.
“Luckily, Joe Kasel helped with the planning, ordering the roast beef, putting it in the oven and also slicing it when it was done. The kitchen help had to peel all the potatoes for the meal, as well as get the other foods ready. We had to reset the tables; there were so many priests and other people at Mass. The church was full — standing room only.”
Changing times at St. John’s: new priests and school addition
This is the third of three chapters on the history of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Vermillion, MN. It was taken from a book commemorating the church’s 125th birthday in 2007.
The day after Father Kaesen’s death, Father Emmett Cashman was appointed parish administrator. The contrast between Father Kaesen and Father Cashman was shocking to the conservative parishioners seasoned in traditional methods and practices. It was especially difficult for older parishioners, comfortable with Father Kaesen’s 54 years of punctuality and predictability, to become accustomed to a free-spirited priest who was consistently late for Mass and other appointments. But Father Cashman did institute some Vatican II changes that Father Kaesen resisted, including the use of lay lectors and some English during Mass.
Unfortunately, Father Cashman had little respect for historical documents, an outgrowth, perhaps, of his long Army career. Father Kaesen was buried on Tuesday, March 16, 1965. The following day, an anxious Father Cashman began cleaning house in both the church and rectory. It also was the day of the great St. Patrick’s Day blizzard. Heavy snow prevented trustee John Ries from reaching the rectory until late in the day. By then, Father Cashman had burned many valuable historical pictures, including Father Kaesen’s complete photographic record of construction progress on the church. Also destroyed were irreplaceable records and artifacts dating back to the beginning of the church. By the end of the first week, even Father Kaesen’s prized library had vanished, never to be seen again.
John Ries did manage to rescue Father Kaesen’s diary from the flames. He later reluctantly turned it over to Father Gillen, but it, too, has since disappeared.
This grievous mistake, however, failed to teach Father Cashman a lesson. He soon began removing statues from the church, including the beautiful angels that had protected both the high altar and the communion rail. At the same time, the white marble baptismal font that matched the church decor also disappeared. The ensuing parish uproar halted father’s remodeling plans in their tracks. Paul Kasel and John Ries later searched antique shops in various towns across southern Minnesota but failed to find the missing items.
Father Cashman, who always walked around with a cup of coffee in his hands, could often wander off on tangents. On more than one occasion, he would start the bath water, leave the room and forget about it until he could see water seeping through the kitchen ceiling. The ceiling was repainted on several occasions during his stay in Vermillion, Lenora Ries said.
One morning, Father called the Ries home at 6 a.m. and asked if they had a shower. Yes they did, Father was told. “I’ll be right out,” he replied. It turns out that Father had accidentally drained all the hot water out of the hot water heater and came out to the Ries home to shower. Although he was supposed to be in church for the 8 a.m. Mass, Father stayed for breakfast and talked and talked as though he had lots of time, Lenora said. Before he left Vermillion, Father showered at the Ries home a couple of times.
Father married Marlene and Tom Majeski in April 1966 in St. John’s. Although the couple lived in Hastings after their wedding and belonged to St. Boniface Church, Father occasionally would drop in unexpectedly on them when they came home from work at noon, share their lunch and talk.
Despite such problems, Father Cashman and parishioners grew closer together as the months passed. When it came time for him to celebrate his silver jubilee, in May 1966, parishioners pitched in to make it a memorable event. Marv Schumacher organized the men into a painting crew and they repainted the church basement. The women, in turn, prepared a delicious dinner for his friends and relatives. Father Cashman was thoroughly and genuinely delighted.
In 1966, St. John’s received its first pastor since Father Kaesen’s death. Father Nicholas Gillen, who came from New Trier, was a fine, gentle, religious man who expanded Father Kaesen’s practice of teaching religion to high school students. Furthermore, he gave the school his full support and introduced many of the Vatican II changes at Mass, including installing an altar so that Mass could be said with the priest facing the parishioners. Fortunately, Father Gillen was extremely interested in preserving the beauty of the church and accomplished the altar change without tearing out or re-arranging either the high altar or the side altars. Because he considered Sunday Mass something special, Father Gillen insisted on entrance and recessional processions.
Although his stay in the parish was relatively short, Father Gillen did mange to oversee some remodeling in the rectory, especially in the kitchen, where he had new cupboards, a new stove, refrigerator and floor installed. He also had new carpeting placed down the center aisle of the church, covering the drab tile and reducing the noise parishioners produced when walking down the aisle. Age forced him to retire in 1968.
Father Gillen’s successor, Father Paul McCann, was a quiet Irishman who brought along his wonderful, always smiling housekeeper, his sister, Elizabeth.
In July 1969, the parish held a celebration in the church hall for Sister Incarnata’s Golden Jubilee, honoring her half-century status in the Benedictine religious order. Sister Incarnata’s parents, Louis and Christina Girgen, donated the land where the present church now stands.
Father McCann, who was forced to retire in 1971 and move to the East Coast for personal reasons, created considerable controversy shortly before he left when he attempted to close St. John’s School. The church trustees, of course, overruled him.
Emma Siebenaler, whose late husband, Bill, was a trustee, said the trustees at the time called the archdiocese, expressing concern from parishioners about Father McCann’s intention to close the school. Siebenaler said archdiocesan officials told the trustees that it takes three groups to close a parish school: the archdiocese, the priest and the school board. There was no need for concern, the officials said, because they had no intention of closing the school.
July 1, 1971, turned out to be a fortuitous day for St. John’s parishioners, for it was on that day that Father Charles Jirik was appointed new pastor.
Extremely well liked by both young and old alike, Father Jirik was, in the classic sense, a true shepherd of his flock. He took great pride in and devoted a tremendous amount of time to St. John’s School, visiting the school at least once a week throughout the year. He ministered to the sick, took Holy Communion to the elderly and was always available for counseling or a kind word. He preserved many of the parish’s traditions, including saying the rosary before Mass, plus frequent confessions and communions.
He also introduced such things as an extra Mass on First Fridays, a Memorial Day Mass and service, plus a yearly outdoor rural life Mass, which were sponsored by Father Antony Kaesen Council, Knights of Columbus. The first of these was held at Kountry Korners Hall just east of the city on June 27, 1976, with Archbishop John Roach serving as celebrant. The Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus, including area members, formed an honor guard at the Mass.
During the outdoor Mass, Archbishop Roach conferred “God-Home-Country” awards to Jonel Langenfeld, Ruth Bastien and Mary Gergen.
Naomi Therres said the outdoor Mass originally was scheduled to be held on her farm just west of Vermillion, but a heavy rainfall and ensuing flooding forced organizers to move the event to the Kountry Korners Hall. Rather than setting up for the Mass, Naomi’s husband, the late Joe Therres, and his crew were extremely busy saving calves from the raging Vermillion River.
Father also instituted another popular tradition: inviting youngsters from St. John’s School to handle the liturgy during weekday and Sunday Masses. Every Wednesday, Father walked over to school to help with the religion classes for every grade.
Finally, no one who grew up during this era will forget Father’s legendary candy and gum drawer. Virtually every child in the parish and the city knew about that drawer and its generous stash of sweet treats. Consequently, children looking for treats would ring his door bell all hours of the day and night.
In a newspaper interview published shortly before he retired in 1987, Father said he encourages children to stop by and that the candy gives them a reason to visit. But the real reason he likes the children to visit is so they come to know him and not be afraid of him.
“Sometimes we are afraid of our pastors,” Father Jirik told the reporter from the Hastings Star Gazette. “This way, they aren’t afraid of me. The kids get to know me, and I get to know them.”
As an incentive to show up, Father would pay altar boys a quarter each to serve Mass on Saturday mornings. He also rewarded the most diligent altar boys by asking them to serve Midnight Mass on Christmas.
Once a year, Father would treat the CCD teachers and their spouses to a dinner and drinks at a nice restaurant, including the Stardust in Prescott, the Black Stallion in Hampton and others.
Father, who handled money very carefully and was a gifted fundraiser, also oversaw many physical projects for the parish. They included the much-needed rewiring of the rectory and church, the construction of a garage for the sisters and housekeeper, carpeting for the sanctuary and both side aisles of the church and the purchase of a new Allen digital computer organ. He also oversaw the installation of a much safer and more convenient basement entryway just off the sacristy. Mrs. Dorothy (Ed) Tutewohl donated the money for the project.
A busload of St. John the Baptist parishioners attended Mass in the St. Paul Cathedral on Sunday, Feb. 8, 1976, which officially opened the Archdiocesan participation in this year’s Eucharistic Congress. Father Jirik was con-celebrant.
Bishop Raymond A. Lucker, son of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Mayer, was installed as the second bishop of the Diocese of New Ulm on Thursday, Feb. 19, 1976, in Holy Trinity Cathedral in New Ulm. Several parishioners from Vermillion attended the ceremony. Bishop Lucker was a frequent visitor to Vermillion while a young man. He was a friend of Father Kaesen and taught religion during summer school sessions at St. John’s. Bishop Lucker’s aunt, Margaret Schiltgen, was Father Kaesen’s rectory housekeeper.
Father and the parish trustees also organized the first parish board, which became very active in the social and financial affairs of both the parish and the community. Father also invited parishioners to count the money donated during Sunday collections.
During Father Jirik’s time in Vermillion, additional insulation was placed in the church attic, the rectory’s exterior and the church trim were painted, the cemetery gates and brick posts were rebuilt and repaired, the church floors were re-varnished and the nativity statues were restored. Father and the parish board also selected main lights for the main part of church. Previously, the church was illuminated with only three lights — one big light hanging in the center of the main aisle and two smaller lights hanging from the ceiling in front of the two large windows.
On June 8, 1975, parishioners, family members and colleagues helped Father celebrate his 40th anniversary in the ministry.
The event, held in the church hall, was organized by the women of St. Anne’s Guild, who also prepared the roast beef dinner.
William Siebenaler, a church trustee, served as master of ceremonies. Father Richard Skluzacek of New Prague served as main guest speaker. William Jirik, Father’s brother, spoke on behalf of the family. Two other brothers and a sister were present. Another brother was living in Germany at the time and could not make the event.
Bernard Langenfeld, a parish board member, addressed the crowd. John Ries, a trustee, presented the church board’s congratulations, while Mary Ann Brummel relayed the good wishes of St. Anne’s Guild. Lawrence Rother represented the 3rd and 4th Degree members of the Knights of Columbus. Elmer Kiekow, parishioner and the mayor of Vermillion, read a proclamation.
St. John’s students sang songs and delivered readings, including one entitled “The Beautiful Hands of a Priest.”
Luella Leifeld baked a special cake with a ministerial theme. Helen Sieben and Dorothy (Ed) Tutewohl also baked cakes for the large crowd.
Decorations were handled by Rose Wollmering, who found photos of Father Jirik as a child, at his ordination and from the present and had them enlarged and framed. She also designed and constructed banners featuring messages from Father’s ministry. She and Father’s popular housekeeper, Miss Magdalene “Maggie” Nohava, embroidered a special banner to “Father Charlie.”
Over the years, Maggie became an endearing fixture in the parish as well. She had a big heart, was an excellent cook and made friends easily. Among her many friends were Bernie and Diana Langenfeld. “Bernie and I taught the 10th grade CCD classes for many years,” Diana Langenfeld said. “Father Jirik had meetings with the CCD instructors at the rectory, so we got acquainted with Maggie right away. She was a friendly person and, when she got to know you, she was very good-hearted. Also, Maggie and I both enjoyed singing. Her voice was very good but sometimes overpowering.
“Maggie was a terrific baker, making Jingle Bell cookies for Christmas and an Easter lamb cake, which she would take to the school to share with the students there,” Diana explained. She was famous for making kolachys, which she donated to St. Anne’s and the church for their fundraisers. At the festival, they were put on auction and sold and re-sold, bringing a fantastic sum for the church.”
Langenfeld said that Maggie, who was a sharp dresser, loved to shop for clothing, jewelry and DISHES. “She really enjoyed setting a beautiful table,” Diana said. “She helped Bernie shop for a present for me — my first wool coat with sheep wool lining and a hood. I loved that coat.”
Betty Gergen said that St. Anne’s back then also was known as the Christian Mothers Society. “So when Maggie joined the parish, she was not allowed to belong to St. Anne’s because she was a single woman,” Betty said. “Father Jirik had the organization change the bylaws to include all women of the parish over 21 years old so she could attend the meetings.”
Betty said Father Jirik was the only priest who came to the St. Anne’s meetings “because he liked to keep tabs on everything.”
One time, Betty continued, the speaker was Mary Jo Copeland, a well-known Twin Cities woman who founded Sharing and Caring Hands and often is called America’s Mother Teresa. The moment Copeland saw Father Jirik, Betty said, she walked right up to him and gave him a big kiss. “I have never seen anyone else turn such a bright shade of red,” she said.
Diana Langenfeld said she would stop to see Father a number of times, to visit or ask a question.
“Every time, he would have me come in, sit a minute and talk,” she said. “‘Have some brandy with me. Only a little bit. You’ve got to have a sip or two,’ Father would say, as he poured a snifter.” Then she and Father would sit and discuss things, she said.
“Father was very approachable and comfortable to talk with. I enjoyed Father very much,” Diana said.
On Dec. 31, 1980, St. John’s helped kick off the city of Vermillion’s 1981 centennial year celebration. Father Jirik held a short prayer service at 11:45 p.m. At midnight, the church bells were rung in honor of the event. Parishioners ringing the bells included Father Jirik, John Ries, Lenore Ries, Paul Kasel, Sister Bernelle, Sylvester Scully, Yvonne Scully, Maggie Nohava, Werner “Bernie” Sandkamp, Lorna Sandkamp, Gloria Marschall, Frank C. Kasel and Tillie Damann.
On Feb. 22, 1981, St. John’s helped launch the city’s centennial week with a church service at 9:30 a.m. Father Jirik celebrated the Mass. Others in attendance included Mayor Elmer Kiekow; council members Sylvester Scully, Rita Sandkamp and Bruce Holien; City Clerk Mary Greenlee; City Engineer Werner “Bernie” Sandkamp and past council members Paul Kasel and John Siebenaler.
The city of Vermillion began its final daylong centennial celebration on May 31 with a special Mass. Bishop Bullock served as guest celebrant. Others taking part in the service included Father Jirik, Paul Kasel, Frank Kasel, Donna Mae Larson, Bruce Holien, Sylvester Scully, Marie Brochman, Jennie Horsch and Justin Neisen. Following the Mass, Joseph Kummer placed flowers on the oldest graves in the cemetery, as well as on Father Kaesen’s grave.
In April 1982, St. John’s Centennial Committee organized a painting bee and carefully spread 22 gallons of paint on the walls and ceiling of the church basement. Pete Cauchy and Ed Deutsch were in charge.
Workers began by scrubbing the walls and then patching all the cracks and holes in the plaster. Those helping with the project included William Siebenaler, Emma Siebenaler, John Ries, Lenore Ries, Dennis Deutsch, George Leifeld, LeRoy Rother, Frank Kasel, Doris Kasel, Mike Kasel, Paul Kasel, Martin Kummer, Robert Siebenaler, Ken Kasel, Albert Rother, Erma Rother, Elmer Kiekow, Matt Siebenaler, Matt Siebenaler Jr., Evelyn Siebenaler, Agnes Deutsch, Harold Raway, Vince Bauer, Mary Lou Bauer, Joe Kimmes, Dave Sandkamp, George Marschall and Tom Tutewohl.
On Monday, May 10, St. John the Baptist Catholic Church celebrated its 100th birthday. Festivities began with a 7 p.m. Mass offered by Father Jirik. Following the Mass, parishioners and guests moved to the church basement for a delightful program presented by youngsters from the parish, under the direction of Ken Kieffer, Sandy Pletcher and Sister Bernelle. The hall was packed with guests, who thoroughly enjoyed the skits, slides and narrative depicting the history of the parish.
Youngsters who participated in the program included Richard Beskau, Kelly Brockman Pete Brummel, Janeen Dobias, Joan Dobias, Kevin Dobias, Mark Dobias, Karen Gehrke, Sharon Gergen, Barb Girgen, Lauri Hackett, Carrie Hudak, Theresa Hudak, Chris Liddle, Lisa Liddle, Shannon Mundlinger, Janeen Peine, Peggy Rother, Steve Schiller, Henry Schneider, Lisa Schneider, Kurt Schneider, Mark Siebenaler, Amy Wagner, Craig Wagner, Heidi Wagner, Jim Wagner, Liz Wagner, Tom Wagner, Lori Werner and Shari Wagner.
Following the program, the crowd was served cake and ice cream. The cake consisted of three cakes that formed the number 100. The cakes were baked by Luella Leifeld and decorated by Luella Leifeld, Sister Edmund Laurent and Sister Ralph Jahner.
In 1984, a major interior restoration project was undertaken. The Stations of the Cross were taken down and sent to St. Paul Statuary’s shop for repairs and painting. The ceiling and upper portions of the walls were painted and Capecchi Decorating installed coverings on the lower portions of the walls. Total cost of the project was $47,477. Donations and interest collected during the fundraising period from 1982 to 1984 was $50,534.10.
Vermillion experienced another sad day on July 1, 1987, when Father Jirik was asked to retire by Archbishop Roach. Father Jirik would have liked to have followed in Father Kaesen’s footsteps and serve out his remaining years at the parish, but it was not to be. His smile, cigars and candy drawer will never be forgotten.
In July 1987, Father Clement Zweber was named to succeed Father Jirik. During his youth, Father Zweber was a highly skilled athlete. Dubbed “Zeke,” he was both a talented outfielder and halfback who could run like the wind, said Leo Girgen, who used to play baseball against him in Antler’s Park near Lake Marion in Lakeville. Leo said those contests were called “beer games.”
Father Zweber, who made a point of visiting the home of every parishioner during his first year here, matured into a hard-working administrator and priest. He continued many of the parish’s treasured traditions and added several welcomed additions, including a second Mass on Saturday evening and Sunday school for youngsters.
But Father ruffled a few feathers when he abolished the money counters because, he said, opening the envelopes and counting the collection gave him and his sister something to do on Sunday afternoons. One former money counter became so upset over not being able to keep track of weekly contributions that he and his family moved to St. Agatha’s in Coates.
In 1988, Father Zweber oversaw construction of new concrete entrance steps on the church, at a cost of $25,300. He found the project particularly pleasing because it forced parishioners to enter church through the sacristy. As a result, parishioners filled the front pews and left the rear pews empty. But Father’s pleasure soon ended when the step project was completed and parishioners resumed sitting in the rear pews.
A year later, in 1989, a new $20,000 roof was installed on the school and another $5,584 was invested in repairing the roof overhang and installing rain gutters on the rectory. To help pay for the school roof project, students organized a penny drive. Unfortunately, the jar was stolen.
Through his gentle guidance and unwavering support, the parish’s annual fall festival matured into a highly successful event — now called the Taste of Vermillion — that not only raises much-needed money for the parish but also helps unite parishioners as they work together toward a common goal.
During his spare time, Father loved to walk over to the park in Vermillion and watch the youngsters play ball. He and his sister also made all the banners we currently use in church.
On June 4, 1989, Father celebrated 40 years in the priesthood. Mass was held at 10 a.m., with a roast beef dinner and reception following. The city of Vermillion presented Father with an official proclamation, naming the day in his honor. The proclamation was signed by Mayor Elmer Kiekow.
In May 1991, Leona Kasel donated money to purchase a carillon in memory of her late husband, Jacob Kasel. The carillon uses computer-generated bell sounds broadcast through speakers installed behind the louvers in the church steeple to play the Angelus and inspirational hymns three times a day.
Unfortunately, Father Zweber’s ailing heart forced him to retire after serving the parish exceptionally well for about four years. When he retired, Father graciously left behind the banners he and his sister had made for the church.
Father Zweber’s replacement, Father Jim Gorman, was assigned to the parish in October 1991. Father Gorman, who earned an undergraduate degree in music from St. Thomas College, set his sights on adding more music to Masses, getting younger members of the parish involved in ministries and improving the CCD program.
“The one thing I really want to add is music,” the 37-year-old priest told a reporter for the Hastings Star Gazette shortly after he arrived. “I asked Father Zweber about it before he left and he told me to go for it and I took his advice right from the start. The people at the weekday Mass seemed to love it.” Father Gorman’s youth, exuberance and love for music quickly succeeded in drawing young parishioners back into church. Before long, Sunday Masses were almost always close to full.
In 1991, the heating system in the church, convent and rectory were converted to natural gas, at a cost of $10,123.00. As part of the project, the old fuel oil storage tanks were removed.
About 25 special athletes and coaches from Luxembourg traveled to Vermillion in March 1992 to see a Luxembourg settlement in Minnesota. The group visited St. John’s Church, St. John’s School, dined at the Stein Haus and toured Leonard and Melvin Brochman’s farm.
In July 1992, the flat roofs on the church and convent were re-roofed by Atlas Roofing for $1,920.
During that same year, the parish invested about $30,000 on restoring the church’s precious stained glass windows. The old storm coverings on the exterior were removed, the stained glass was washed and grouted, rotten wood was replaced, the framework was painted and then new Plexiglas storm coverings were installed. The vents were removed and the stained glass memorials were completely re-leaded. On the inside, the windows were washed, bulges were taken out of the windows, lead lines were repaired, braces were checked and repaired and the letter “L” was added to correct the spelling of “Langenfeld” in one of the windows, an error that dated back to the original installation. Finally, vents with screens were installed. A beautiful re-dedication Mass was celebrated on Nov. 22, 1992.
Sadly, Father Gorman’s desire to take control of the church music ignited a bitter conflict among a handful of parishioners, who flooded Archbishop Roach with letters demanding that he be replaced. Father Gorman, who had no stomach for conflict, eventually bowed to the pressure and resigned, much to the distress of many parishioners, particularly the young people he had drawn back into the parish.
Father James Remes, a gregarious man with a huge voice, was assigned to St. John’s parish on May 1, 1993. Within days of his arrival, Father Remes made certain that most members of the small group of parishioners responsible for Father Gorman’s sudden departure had left the parish. In a puzzling move, he also fired the parish council; St. John’s has not had a parish council since.
Once the cleansing was completed, Father Remes began his mission to bring St. John’s into the 1990s by updating the school curriculum to include modern computers, music and physical education. In the process, St. John’s popular principal, Sister Bernelle, left rather than accept being demoted from principal to a first grade teacher.
“I’m not trying to be vindictive. I’m not out to get anyone,” Father told a reporter for the Hastings Star Gazette. “We are making changes here. We have to make changes to meet the challenges of the ’90s.”
Despite Father’s intentions, Sister Bernelle’s loss was a blow to the parish. From the time she arrived in 1979, Sister Bernelle was a tireless worker for the school, the church and the community. She also strongly emphasized the reading program at school. Outside the classroom, she helped with the city of Vermillion’s centennial celebration and was a staunch and active foe of the Metropolitan Airport Commission’s misguided attempt to re-locate Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in the Vermillion Township area.
Besides modernizing the school, Father’s other goal was to upgrade the religious education program. Many of his sermons, which were short and to the point, were based on family values. He was very interested in educating our youth about issues that concern them, such as alcoholism, drug abuse, sex and marriage. Along with his duties at St. John’s, Father Remes continued to work with alcoholics and drug addicts, helping them get clean, much like Christ cleansed us from our sins through love and forgiveness. The youth of the parish appreciated Father Remes’ straight talk and felt that they had another priest who understood the struggles they go through as teens.
Father Remes also added the first kindergarten classes to St. John’s. But it wasn’t his idea — and he had lots of help.
Here’s what happened, according to the Aug. 12, 1993, issue of the Catholic Bulletin: “Kate Ries met Father James Remes on the street in Vermillion one day this summer, and posed a question for her pastor.
“The mother of three pre-schoolers asked why St. John the Baptist School didn’t offer Kindergarten.
” ‘He said, “We can do that,” and within weeks, it’s happened.’ Ries said.
“Ries enlisted the help of her friend Jean Beskau, who also has a young family, and the two of them went through the parish books looking for families with children of kindergarten age. The pair began a telephone brigade, and 15 families expressed interest.
“By Aug. 3, parents and youngsters were at St. John to look at the new kindergarten room, to meet the new kindergarten teacher, Stephanie Vote, and to learn about the new program.”
Once the kindergarten idea was planted, Father Remes and lay principal Patty Karnick quickly worked their way through all the paperwork and necessary improvements so that the school building could be certified for kindergarten. It was a great addition to the school and many parents were happy because they no longer had to send their children to the public school one year and then transfer them to St. John’s the next.
During his sermons, Father would tell parishioners that the parish ought to be operated like a business and that it needed to build a cash surplus to cover unanticipated emergencies. While collections increased during his tenure, he never was able to convince the parish’s fiscally conservative agriculture base that he needed more cash on hand than was prudently needed to cover normal operating expenses.
Father Remes served Vermillion for only one year, but it turned out to be a very productive — and highly interesting — year indeed.
Father Remes’ successor, Father Joseph Arackal, was assigned to St. John’s on May 1, 1994. When he arrived, Father Joe said that he planned no major changes. Instead, he wanted to continue to make St. John’s a good parish and also continue the renewal as explained by the Vatican II Council.
One of Father Joe’s first achievements was to bring religious nuns back into St. John’s School by hiring two Franciscan Clarist nuns, Sisters Tresa Margret and Mary Noel. He said he made the move because he wanted to increase the number of religious in the parish community.
In another welcome change, Father Joe followed new archdiocesan guidelines that allowed girls to become altar servers. St. John’s celebrated its first Mass with all girl altar servers on Aug. 28, 1994. The historic group consisted of Cassie Wood, Jackie Stoffel, Amanda Hoopman and Ashley Retchtzigel.
Within weeks of his arrival, Father converted the weekly church bulletin from a two-page flier filled with routine announcements to a four-page communication tool brimming with adult educational and inspirational articles.
Over the years, Father Joe also introduced a number of other firsts for the parish, including:
First Community Prayer published in bulletin on May 8, 1994, and later introduced at Mass.
First general parish gathering to replace the parish council disbanded by Father Remes. Monthly communal pre-Baptism instruction for parents and sponsors. Celebration of Baptism at Saturday/Sunday Masses.
Resumed annual Old Timers Homecoming Day, beginning on Oct. 13, 1994.
First Communion enrollment rite with peer sponsors, which was held on Nov. 13, 1994.
Annual communal celebrations of the sacrament of Reconciliation with several priests present. The celebrations are held during Advent and Lent.
First Patmos birthday and wedding anniversary calendar. Communal celebration of the anointing of the sick on Feb. 11 and 12, 1995.
Eucharistic adoration with suggested family names three times a year — Advent, Lent and Holy Thursday — with Benediction.
Thanksgiving food collection in 1994.
Employee matching gift program in 1995.
Rite of Christian Initiations.
Blessing of animals in conjunction with feast of St. Francis on Oct. 4.
Healing prayer services during the year.
About a month after Father Joe’s arrival, Joan Nyberg published her book, “A Rustling of Wings,” which was a guide to angels in art and architecture. St. John’s, which contains more than three dozen angels, was included in the book. The angels serve as a testament to the faith of the farming community that built the church in 1913, as well as to Father Kaesen’s desire to have angels well represented in his church.
The first building project Father Joe oversaw was fixing the copper portion of the church steeple, which needed repair, and repainting the metal exterior trim. In 1997, improvements included a landscaping and sidewalk project, relocation of some church pews, school exit work prompted by the addition of preschool classes, electrical work in the sacristy and painting two panels of the church ceiling directly above the choir loft. Relocating the pews prompted one upset couple to leave the parish.
Fundraising for these projects began in 1994 and the work was done in stages over the next three years.
In 1995, the church interior underwent extensive restoration and repainting to repair peeling paint and other damage to the ceiling and walls that occurred over the years. Cost of the project would have totaled more than $25,000, but the parish’s insurance company paid all but $4,205.04 of the cost.
Father also spearheaded a new entrance/elevator accessibility project in 1996. The addition, which blends in beautifully with the church, made it much easier for the elderly and people with disabilities to attend Mass and enjoy programs held in the parish hall. The project also involved the construction of large, handicap-accessible bathrooms in the basement, as well as a ground-level gathering space used for meetings and for visitations prior to funerals.
Total cost of the addition was $232,474.79. A $61,390.61 contribution from the Frank and Bill Leifeld estate made it possible to tackle the project. The architect was Birkeland Architects, Inc., of Hastings, and the general contractor was Ken Smith Construction Co. of Red Wing. Jack Siebenaler served as the project’s chairperson. Committee members were Father Joe, John Ries, Paul Kasel, Earl Wagner, Helen Wood, Betty Gergen, Gloria Marschall, Bruce Aslesen, LeRoy Rother and Mary Brockman.
Bishop Lawrence Welsh blessed and dedicated the addition on June 15, 1997.
Under Father’s direction, the parish built or paved four parking lots: a small one in front of the rectory, a large one in front of the school, another behind the school and a fourth on the west side of church. In 1998, a garage/shelter was built on the south side of the convent to house the parish car provided for the sisters living in the convent. The $15,713.11 cost of the project was donated by Margaret and Veronica Kasel in memory of their brother, Mike Kasel. Ironically, Mike never had a garage on his farm just west of Vermillion. John Leifeld and Doug Speedling performed the bulk of the work.
During the summer and fall of 1998, the pews and floors in the church were varnished. Paul Kasel organized the Herculean task. Others wielding brushes included Rosie Loesch, Maria Therres, Mary Brockman, Agnes Deutsch, John and Lenora Ries, Diane Gehrke, Dennis Rother, LeRoy Rother, Cliff and Madonna Larsen, Linda Stoffel, Debbie Louis, Karen Frandrup and John Koewler
In 1999, new combination windows were installed on the rectory. In 2000, EMI installed a new sound system in church that accommodated the special hearing units purchased previously. Total cost of the installation was $15,119.27. The entry on the upper level of the church also was painted
In 2002, a rubber coating was installed on the flat portion of the roof over the chapel in the convent. In 2003, the asbestos shingles were removed from the rectory roof and the roof was re-shingled, at a cost of $11,500. Robert Carpentier Roofing performed the work.
A year later, new kneeler pads were installed and non-scoff pads were fastened to the bottom of the kneelers to prevent scratching of the varnished floor. The kneeler-reupholstering project, which cost $5,755, was performed by Garner Upholstery. Earl and Mary Wagner were the chairpersons for the upgrade.
On Feb. 9, 2004, John and Lenora Ries were lauded as the longest-wed couple to attend the archdiocese’s annual World Marriage Day celebration at the Cathedral in St. Paul. At the time, John and Lenora had been married for 69 years.
In 2005, Father Joe oversaw one of the most expensive projects in parish history: an 8,200-square-foot addition to the school. The project, which cost $1,178,370.48, was jump-started by a generous $300,000 donation from John Bauer, an area farmer and life-long parishioner who died about 18 months after the school was completed. In addition, $89,338.30 from the Pete and Nick Marschall estate also was used to help pay for the school addition.
Birkeland Architects, Inc., of Hastings — the same firm that designed the elevator/entrance project — was hired to design the new school. Cobra Construction, Inc., of Vadnais Heights, Minn., was hired as general contractor.
Dennis Rother served as chairperson of the building committee. Other members were Cheryl Bonderson, David Beskau, Don Kamen, Renee Kasel, Jack Siebenaler, John Wellman, LeRoy Rother (trustee), John Wagner (trustee), Sister Tresa Margret and Father Joseph Arackal.
Work began in early spring. In an attempt to begin excavation as early as possible, construction company officials insisted on installing an elaborate system that used steam heat to thaw the ground. However, the $40,000 effort, which was paid for by the company, proved fruitless and Mother Nature eventually drove the frost from the ground. Construction was completed in October. The addition included a new classroom/science room for fifth graders, a library/music room, a conference room, a large community room and office space. The science room has yet to be completed.
Archbishop Harry Flynn blessed the school on Oct. 20, 2005. The Mother Teresa 4th Degree Knights of Columbus Color Guard was there as well. As part of the ceremony, Father Joe escorted Archbishop Flynn throughout the new school and then into the old, blessing the rooms and symbolically merging the old with the new.
As of August 2007, parishioners pledged $844,553.94 and contributed $711,791.90 toward the massive project. In an unfortunate repeat of what occurred when the church was built in 1913, some parishioners became extremely upset with the building project, left St. John’s and joined neighboring parishes. Nevertheless, the new addition is helping to attract more students. What’s more, the community room has become a particularly versatile addition to the parish. It has been used for catered events, physical education classes, Science Fair displays and presentations, general assemblies, meetings, wakes, graduation ceremonies, grandparents day luncheons and fundraising events, such as Bingo Fun Days and the parish festival.
During the hot and humid summer of 2007, Saturday evening Masses were moved from the steamy church into the air-conditioned community room, much to the delight of parishioners.
In 2006, the Chapel was re-installed in the church basement in space that for years had housed the old library. The space was rededicated as All Saints Chapel.
Crumbling plaster on the east side of the parish hall was expertly repaired by John Leifeld in the spring of 2007. Members of the St. Janice Circle, part of St. Anne’s Council of Catholic Women, then washed the walls, overhead heating pipes and ductwork in preparation for painting. The John and Pam Wagner family and Ralph Malloy then expertly painted the walls and ceiling, giving the entire area a fresh, bright appearance. The Wagners’ daughter, Nichole, was a particularly helpful member of the team. Father Joe blessed the refurbished hall on April 15th.
One of the final projects for 2007 involved surveying the church cemetery and moving the south fence back about 33 feet, to within one foot of the property line, to accommodate additional upright gravestones in Block 4 of the cemetery. The project was headed by Greg Ries, who took charge of cemetery lot sales after his uncle, John Ries, died in December 2005. Jake Gergen and Norbert Girgen took charge of cemetery maintenance.
Others helping with the cemetery fence project were LeRoy Rother, Tom Majeski, Jake Gergen, John Waltman, Leonard Brochman and Mike Wagner. Gary Ries from Stagecoach Transportation donated the use of his skid loader and dump truck and Ron Girgen donated his cement mixer. Pine Bend Paving donated the gravel for the concrete.
Unlike Father Jirik, Father Joe does not have a candy and gum drawer. But the new addition to the school underscores his deep commitment to St. John’s and its students. He also frequently invites youngsters to gather around the altar during the consecration at Masses.
Father Joe also has continued Father Jirik’s and Father Zweber’s successful efforts to recruit converts to the Catholic faith. One of his largest classes was in 1997, when six candidates participated in the program.
If you are sick or experience a family emergency, Father’s the one to call. His quiet compassion, deep religious beliefs and genuine concern combine to lift the spirit, provide mental comfort and ease physical pain.
Father’s deep faith and spirituality, which are evident during Mass and in the church bulletin, have inspired a number of parishioners, including Karen and Harvey Radke.
“Father Joe shares his gift of faith. His message resonates with us, guiding us daily and providing harmony in our lives,” say the Radkes, who recently joined the parish. “His gift is embodied in the community of St. John the Baptist, a community filled with devoted families, strong leaders and caring people who generously share their gifts of faith, making our lives better and brighter.”
For the past 125 years, St. John’s has flourished under a variety of pastors and various economic conditions. The indomitable faith that drove our forefathers to build a church without the bishop’s permission surfaced again and again over the decades. Whenever the need arose, parishioners rolled up their sleeves and opened their wallets to preserve our priceless church, improve our excellent parochial school and maintain the rectory, convent and cemetery. The volunteer spirit and generosity regularly practiced by these dedicated parishioners are blessings to behold.
Although St. John’s continues to flourish, it faces several worrisome challenges. Church membership and attendance are down and, not surprisingly, Sunday collections often fall behind expenses. Too many of our parishioners regularly attend Mass at neighboring churches, where services often are shorter. Others rarely attend church, which is fast becoming a national crisis. Because missing parishioners are out of touch, they don’t show up at parish events, including the annual Taste of Vermillion parish festival, Bingo Fun Days, spaghetti dinners, sausage suppers and pancake breakfasts. What’s more, their Sunday envelopes rarely end up in St. John’s collection baskets. Like missing bolts on an aircraft’s wing, their repeated absences jeopardize the health of the entire St. John’s parish community. Finding ways to bring them back to the fold will be a major challenge. But on the positive side, St. John’s remains vibrant. Our impressively handsome church is in relatively good repair and our enlarged school and its excellent staff of highly skilled and dedicated teachers is attracting more students every year. In addition, our reliable and devoted volunteers perform yeomen service year in and year out. Another encouraging sign is the strong presence and commitment of the Home and School Association, St. Anne’s, the Knights of Columbus and the Catholic Aid Association.
No one knows what lies ahead, of course. The world is evolving rapidly and these changes are having a dramatic impact on our religious beliefs and practices. A quarter century from now, St. John’s will be poised to celebrate its 150th anniversary. Hopefully, those who are selected to update the parish history will look back at our time with the same pride and respect we hold for the brave and bold pioneers who built this parish out of faith, sweat and determination.