HOVEN, S.D. -- The Plains wind sends clouds skimming across the sky over the short grass prairie, turning the twin spires of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church from brilliant crimson to burnt umber and back again.

From 10 miles out, the church looks strong, filling the horizon. It's when one goes inside, up to the attic under the peaked roof, that one sees the problem:

St. Anthony's, known as the Cathedral of the Prairies, needs a new roof.

Fixing the church is going to take a leap of faith far greater than the ones parishioners took countless other times when they sacrificed for the church, which dominates the heart of Hoven, a tiny farming community that is half German and heavily Catholic.

The 330 families of its parish need to raise $750,000 -- now, before winter rips into the landscape.

They believe that God was with them in the building of this place, which was finished in 1921 and paid off before the Dust Bowl settled in. They believe God will be with them now.

To them -- and to the many people this place has touched far from Hoven -- the problem is about more than saving a church. It is about saving their heritage, their history and their community's soul.

 


In medieval Europe, cathedrals were the lifeblood of the faithful. St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, modeled after one in Ruhmannfelden, Germany, plays a similar, central role in the lives of people like Agnes Reuer and her family.

Agnes was one of eight Rausch girls, six of whom married Hoven men -- farmers, ranchers, the town cop. Agnes and her sister Rose Marie Reuer (they married first cousins) gave church tours. Another sister, Alice Simon, is the lead organist on the 1,200-pipe instrument; Agnes played fill-in.

Agnes, 68, fell ill July 10, the day after she had eye surgery in the Twin Cities. Paramedics rushed her four blocks from her house to Holy Infants Hospital, next to the church.

The Rev. Lance Osner hurried away from the morning recitation of the rosary to anoint her because her heart had stopped. She was revived but died less than an hour later with her husband, Rollie, and the priest nearby.

Rose Marie's heart was broken, but she went straight from her sister's bedside to the church to give tours. "Agnes would want me to," she said simply.

A vacationing family wandered in after morning mass.

"This really is a cathedral," the man exclaimed.

"No," Rose Marie said. "The cathedral is where the bishop is, but this is called the Cathedral of the Prairies."

The roof emergency

Osner arrived at St. Anthony's last fall and quickly understood that the roof was an emergency.

Water leaks through the roof and decays support beams. Paint and plaster are peeling off interior walls; towering sanctuary columns are weakening and the side walls are damaged.

"I'm a teacher, not a fundraiser," Osner said with a smile as he pulled weeds out of the petunias and marigolds in front of the rectory the afternoon of Agnes Reuer's death. "I'm no good at math."

The parish had about $100,000 on hand but needed $500,000 to do the most important and immediate repair work.

To complicate things, the parish school had been sold three years earlier, with $500,000 in proceeds put into a diocesan mutual fund. With the downturn in the stock market, they'll lose $80,000 if the money is pulled out now. While many in the parish want to do it anyway, Osner prefers to create an endowment, using interest to pay for upkeep.

So they're busy holding rummage sales and choir concerts and planning a fall festival and a South Dakota Symphony concert and an Advent concert in December, and selling a print of a stunning painting of the church. And advertising anywhere they can think of.

The priest thinks that by the end of the year they will have $275,000, more than enough to begin repairs, but that's by his most generous accounting. Beyond that, "the Lord will provide," Osner said.

He kept pulling weeds. "I think they'll do it. I do."

Sacrificial faith

It seems like the roof has always leaked. In decades past, parishioners would crawl up the stairs into the attic to hang buckets from wires along the edges of the roof. The wires are still there, but the buckets are gone. When that generation died out, no one was willing to climb up and empty the buckets.

Twenty years ago, church members also needed what seemed like an impossible amount of money to refurbish the interior. The priest at the time convinced them that they had the talent and energy to do the restoration themselves.

So they did. They built a huge wood scaffolding inside the church and learned how to clean the walls to preserve the original paintings. They created new stencils to mimic the original designs and refurbished the trim. It took them 20,000 volunteer hours and four years.

Matching colors "just kind of came to me," said Mary Joan Arbach, a church member with an artistic bent who worked on the project.

Like Arbach, Jan Seurer had no formal art instruction. Last winter, Seurer spent six months painting the frieze of the Last Supper that adorns the front of the altar.

"When you work in that church, it just happens," she said. "It comes to you."

The people of Hoven have always given, even when it hurts, and people now don't think that any of their sacrifices are more than those their parents and grandparents made.

Even so, Leona Kaiser remembers that during years of crop failure, her parents would tell her, "if they didn't have a crop that year, people would borrow money from the bank to make their annual donation to the church. That's just the way it was."

Holy ground

Almost everyone in the parish has relatives in the Twin Cities. When families return, they see their names etched in the stained glass windows and in all the memories. Church secretary Linda Feldmeier was busy in the rectory recently when a man came in from the Twin Cities. "He just wanted to make sure which plot in the cemetery was marked for his remains," she said.

When the parish put two small ads seeking donations in Twin Cities newspapers, for a total cost of about $700, they received almost $10,000 for the roof. They've kept the notes that came with the checks:

"I have fond memories of the summer of 1950 when I worked with the good people of Hoven installing a sewer system."

"We have visited your beautiful church. We pray you will be able to complete your restoration."

"This is in memory of my Mother and Dad. I am their tenth child and was baptized at St. Anthony's, but we moved away when I was five."

"I am not of your faith but my neighbors talk so lovingly about your church so I feel I know all about it."

Tom Isern, professor of history at North Dakota State University, studies the sociology of the Plains. "I'm a Lutheran so I can say this: Generally speaking, Roman Catholic families maintain a stronger parish connection than other groups do. There's a loyalty and piety that holds up over even thousands of miles. It's place-connected.

"Lutherans tend to think the Bible can go anywhere, but when you've got roots in a Roman Catholic parish on the prairie, it's holy ground to you," he said.

Growing up, the people of St. Anthony's never thought it was odd that their tiny prairie town had a huge church at its heart. But Rose Marie Reuer said she and her sister Agnes wished that they had interviewed the Rev. Anthony Helmbrecht, the church's builder, before he died because they have lost a lot of that early history.

Said Osner: "This is such an heirloom of a church that their ancestors started. Now it's time for serious repair."

The priest wants Seurer, the painter of the altar, to design a Christmas tree ornament for the symphony concert fundraiser in December. They need the design by mid-August.

"Father's got so many ideas," she said. "We've just got to turn his brains off!"

On the evening of Agnes Reuer's death, her family was at their cathedral as the French Boys Choir performed for another fundraiser. Surrounded by his family and friends, Rollie Reuer got hugs and help. Making plans for the funeral. Listening to the music. Hoping the concert raised a little for the roof.

When Leona Kaiser arrived, she said of her sister: "She wouldn't want anything to hold back the project."

Another woman said: "I sure hope nobody stayed away because of Agnes. She'd want everyone to help out and be here."

Martha Sawyer Allen is at 612-673-7919, or mallen@startribune.com.