Early in the project, my friend Howard wrote a series of articles on the history of Catholics in Fennimore county from the earliest non-Native settlement up to about 1950. Given the last couple entries devoted to Saint Ahab, I thought you might find some interest in the founding of his parish.
A few figs from thistles…
by Howard A. Tabor
“History isn’t what happened. History is what a few people thought was important.” According to Idries Shah, that is. And so it may be with the history of Catholics in Fennimore county.
The orthodox history of Catholicism in these parts reads fairly straightforwardly. The arrival of believers and establishment of a parish, the coming and going of priests and nuns, the construction of buildings for worship and religious education, the burning of mortgages, celebrations of life and death among the faithful. In the movie version, Barry Sullivan would have played someone; now it ought to be Johnny Depp. If Idries Shah is right and history is what a few people thought was important enough to record–a simple list of events in chronological order–I’d rather be one of the many.
During the 1850s Catholics arrived in dribs and drabs, mostly Germans, a handful of Irish, some French, one Hungarian family. And there was also missionary work among the Sac and Fox people. This was not the stuff of cohesive parish life. St. Miscellaneous would have been a good choice for the parish dedication. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Mass was said often, to small groups, in borrowed quarters.
The Missionary Board sent a priest named Manning to make sense of it all. Father Frank performed yeoman’s service during those formative years, a virtual circuit rider among his scattered flock. But the problem (other than insufficient time and money) was cohesion: how to bridge all this diversity and build a single self-sustaining parish. Achieving community ain’t easy. Agincourt was the logical place to build and weather apparently provided the inspiration. Too often the genuinely religious are inclined to ignore proportionality and make too much of the miniscule; wars have been fought over the direction that you genuflect (left to right; right to left). In our case a major atmospheric event offered the impetus to build.
There are those storms that rain something besides water. Hail is fairly common; fish are not. In the summer of 1862, a large storm passed southeast of Agincourt, dropping frozen fish–species unidentified–on the Schütz farm. Waterspouts are known to suck fish from lakes and oceans, carrying them hundreds of miles overland and raining where they’re least expected. There is a clipping from the Plantagenet of April 8th recording the event. It was a cause of wonder and may have been interpreted as “a sign” during those months when Civil War activity was so close in neighboring Missouri. What the newspapers failed to report was the heavenly arrival of a ship’s mast, taken by that same waterspout and deposited in Hermann Schütz’s freshly plowed field! This was clearly a sign: In hoc signo vinces. It couldn’t have been any clearer to Constantine.
At Mass soon afterward one of the Schütz brood (there were seven then and ultimately seven more) must have let the family secret slip, because Fr Frank asked to see this Gift from God, this Heavenly Harpoon. In an instant, his fertile mind saw it as the first timber of a new church and a symbol to weave the fabric of parish life around. Within months financial support had come from friends and relatives in the East and the project was afoot.
It would have been superficial to incorporate a ship’s mast as the cross on a bell tower. Fr Frank scoured his own small library and then wrote his seminary for clues to what must be its deeper meaning. The result was the choice of Saint Ahab (whose hagiography has eluded most texts and whose name rarely, if ever, appears in the regular church Kalendar) as our parish name. Unassuming in every way–except for its mast–the building dedicated in September 1862 served Fennimore’s Catholics for more than fifty years. Moved twice, it became a chapel for the concentration of Dutch as Grou and then came again back to Agincourt, where it still serves the cemetery on the east edge of town.
But the story is hardly over. Construction of Christ the King in 1950 revealed signs of a burial on the church lot. Somehow we had mislaid our faithful Fr Manning, asleep in Christ beside his former church. The secret of his rich and moving story will keep awhile longer. As will the tale of how that marvel of modernity, our own Christ the King, came to be among us.
There are three more installments that will bring the story to the 1950s and the construction of that wonderful building designed by Chicago architect Barry Byrne–as channelled through my friend Richard Kenyon (alias Crazy Richard) who many of you have met. I hope you’ll enjoy the story’s twists and turns.