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St. Benedict's Church Celebrates 125 Years
Catholic Church is the Oldest Brick Church in Nebraska
Nebraska City, Ne., News Press, Sunday, September 13, 1981 [included church photo at top of page]
"It's a lifetime deal" is the way Mrs. Andrew Gress, 90, the oldest member of the oldest brick church in Nebraska, describes her affiliation with St. Benedict's Catholic Church in Nebraska City. Representing the third of five generations married in St. Benedict's, Mrs. Gress is not as unique as she might seem. There are several families whose church and family history can be traced back to the founding days of the institution, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this month. Many of the 88 families are worshipping in the church of their parents.
The parish of St. Benedict's was organized in November, 1856, when Father John Cavanaugh rode on horseback from Omaha to hold mass. In those days, mass was held in the homes of Joseph Sand, Sr. and Mrs. Mary Halpin, as well as in a meeting hall near the Burlington yards.
In 1860, Father Philip Vogg, O.S.B., was sent as resident pastor, beginning 50 years service by the Benedictine Fathers. The present brick structure, begun under Father Vogg's leadership, was completed in 1861 under Father Emmanuel Hartig, O.S.B. The church is located on a river bluff called Kearney Hill, one of the highest points in Nebraska City.
The church, considered large for its time, has a comfortable seating capacity of approximately 200. It is 87 feet long and 34 feet wide, with a bell tower reaching a height of 50 feet. The tower is topped with a cross on top of a globe. In 1908, while workmen were dismantling the tower in order to strengthen it, they discovered a document describing the costs and methods of construction and the names of parishioners who donated their labor to the construction.
"Joseph Sand, Henry Bueter and N. Lehey let the contract for the building to August Gerhardt." Gerhardt was paid $810.
"The brick walls were constructed by Harter and Hughes. These masons agreed to complete the walls for the consideration of $480 and according to contract completed the walls in the month of October in the year 1861.
"The foundation of the church was built by John McFarland and John Rigly in the year 1861 at a cost of about $300.
"The place or ground had been acquired from N. Boulware at a cost of $3 for eight lots.
"The cornerstone of this church was laid by the Rt. Rev. James O'Gorman, the first bishop of the territory of Nebraska on the first of September, 1860.
"The originator and promoter of this church and tower was Rev. Phillip Vogg, O.A.B., then pastor of the Catholic community located in Nebraska City, Also missionary of the territory of Nebraska who also at first directed the construction of the building of the said church.
"The church and tower were erected at a cost of about $4000."
The document is signed "Rev. Emmanuel Hartig, O.S.B. Nebraska City, Nebr.
Then, as now, the work of the church was performed by the members. Because there is no record of brick purchases and because the brick used in the church cannot be matched, it is assumed that the brick was made by the building crew. The brickyard that operated in Nebraska City opened after the church was constructed.
The appearance of the church has changed very little since its earliest photographs. The changes are in the surroundings- in the growth of trees, the vehicles in front, and the placement of steps when the street in front was paved and the level of the street was lowered.
The solid walnut pews represent another labor of love performed by the early builders. Two huge single slabs, unattainable today, from the seat and back. They are worn smooth and gleaming from 120 years of use. The original altar rail is also still in use.
In 1865 the Convent of the Annunciation was founded with day school and academy in charge of the Benedictine Sisters, with nine sisters and two postulants. The building was partly wood and formed one structure with the church.
The growth of the Catholic community in Nebraska City resulted in new congregations. In 1872 St. Joseph's Church was organized in the Schmitz settlement outside of the town of Paul, eight miles south of Nebraska City. Because of the growth away from Kearney Hill, St. Mary's was organized by the Irish of the parish, following the trend toward ethnic churches. St. Benedict's became predominantly German in ethnic character.
In 1910 the Fathers of the Precious Blood took over the two Nebraska City parishes. Father Sixtus Meyer, C.P.P.S., was the first of that order to serve St. Benedict's.
Father Francis T. Kramer, C.P.P.S., became priest at St. Benedict's in 1919. Under his leadership the church was given a new roof, a furnace was installed, and most importantly of all, the street was paved in front of the church so that parishioners no longer had to slide up and down the hill in the mud.
A new rectory was built in 1939 under Father Charles Bauer, C.P.P.S, who served the parish from 1937 to 1949. In 1948 it was observed that the walls of the church were spreading and the roof was in danger of collapse. The walls were torn down and rebuilt from the base of the windows. As many as possible of the old bricks were salvaged. The church was redecorated after the wall repair.
1951 marked the opening of the new St. Benedict's school, replacing the structure built in 1865. The drive to build the new school was spearheaded by Father John Kraus, C.P.P.S., who was pastor from 1949 to 1955. The cost of the school was kept to about $45,000 because most of the labor was donated by parishioners. The debt was almost totally retired by the centennial in 1956. St. Benedict's School is now part of the Lourdes School System and presently has 50 students from both Catholic parishes in kindergarten through third grade.
For St. Benedict's centennial celebration the church was redecorated, new carpeting was laid, the boys' sacristy was reopened and a new set of stations was donated.
The last 25 years have continued to see improvements. The parking lot in back of the church ha been enlarged and graveled and the church has been completely rewired. The boys' sacristy and the school restrooms have been retiled. The church has been air-conditioned by the Barton Lemrick family in memory of Laura Lemrick.
The members of the parish continue to donate the labor to maintain the church. The original hardwood floor under the pews was resanded and refinished by the women of the church eight years ago. All the women are listed alphabetically in pairs to take their turn in the weekly cleaning of the church. The men maintain the yard and the exterior of the building. They have painted the outside trim in preparation for the upcoming celebrations. The interior of the church is also being painted.
The committee for the anniversary celebration has planned a basket dinner following the 11 a.m. mass on Sept. 20 for all parishioners, former parishioners and friends. Each family is asked to bring one meat dish, one other dish and their own table service. Drinks will be furnished.
On Sept. 27 the Most Rev. Glennon B. Flavin, Bishop of Lincoln, will celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the mass at 4 p.m. The anniversary sermon will be given by Father Alvin S. Herber, C.P.P.S., a former priest at St. Benedict's. Invitations are being issued to all former priests of St. Benedict's and to many others in the Lincoln Diocese. Invitations are also being issued for the dinner following the mass. The children of St. Benedict's School will present a program on both occasions.
Father Lyle Johnson is the present parish priest, as well as the Superintendent of the Lourdes School System. His predecessor, Father Liam Barr, was recalled by the Order of the Precious Blood due to pressing needs elsewhere. Father Johnson, the first diocesan priest to serve the parish, arrived in July. When asked what he felt the focus of the anniversary story should be, he answered unhesitantly, "The People!"
And so the report of these 125 years of history must end as it began, with the oldest and the youngest, the people who form the essence of the parish, with Mrs. Gress, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Lechner, the longest married, with Matthew John Gawart, infant son of Mr. and Mrs. John Gawart, who is the youngest member of the congregation.
Mrs. Gress' maternal grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Gillich, were German immigrants who were married in St. Benedict's in 1868. Her mother, Rosalia Gillich, married Joseph Zeiner, who also immigrated from Germany, in 1889. Of nine children, four others still live in Nebraska City: George Zeiner, Mrs. Carl Schnitzer, Mrs. Olive Welter and Mike Zeiner. Young Mary Zeiner Gress spoke only German when she started school.
Mary Zeiner and Andrew Gress were married in St. Benedict's on April 16, 1912, and had seven children. Mr. Gress died in 1960. The oldest child is Sister Mary Celine of the Sisters of St. Francis at St. Anthony's Hospital in Oklahoma City. The second daughter, Mrs. Louise Reed, resides in Nebraska City. A son, Henry, and Verna Damme Gress, Nebraska City, were married in St. Benedict's and their two daughters, Kathleen and Karen, represent the fifth generation of marriages to be performed in the church. Sharon Gress, daughter of second son, Edward, and Leonna Meredith Gress, is also one of the fifth generation to be married in St. Benedict's. Other daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Gress are Mrs. Martha Davenport, New Mexico; Mrs. Dorothy Wriston, Oklahoma; Mrs. Rita Kopf, Nebraska City, who was also married in St. Benedict's.
Source: Fredolin T. Lechner owns this book.
Nebraska City Centennial 1854-1954, Published at Nebraska City, Nebraska, August, 1954
Compiled by Women's Division of the Chamber of Commerce. Sponsored by: The Press Printing Company
St. Benedict's Catholic (1855)
St. Benedict's was the first Catholic Church in Nebraska City. It's history really begins when the Vicor Apostolic residing in Leavenworth, Kansas, visited Nebraska City in 1855. Father Cavanaugh was sent out from Omaha in 1856, actually the beginning of St. Benedict's.
Mass was said in private homes in a hall at the foot of Kearney Hill until 1860 when the erection of the present St. Benedict's began. It was completed in 1861 when Father Emmanuel Hartig was resident priest. Father Emmanual prepared a document read: "The ground for the church site was secured from N. Boulware for $3.00 - the cost of the entire church was about $4000.00."
Even though the twelve stained glass windows were not added until 1915 they are such unusual beauty that a visit to the church just to see them is well worth the time. The pews, communion rail and sanctuary furniture are all of native walnut.
In order to preserve this historical church in its original beauty, and because of the sinking of one of the walls, within the last few years an extensive remodeling job has been completed
Mr. and Mrs. Robert Lechner were married in St. Benedict's on December 27, 1921. They are the second of four generations to be married in the church on Kearney Hill and the first of four generations to be baptized there.
Mr. Lechner's parents, Fred and Mary Stahl Lechner, were married in the church. Mrs. Lechner's parents attended St. Benedict's from about 1900 on. The Lechner's and their two children, Robert Lechner of Nebraska City and Mrs. Rose Marie Miller of Lincoln, were all baptized in St. Benedict's.
Rose Marie Lechner married Ralph Miller at St. Benedict's and their daughter, Suzanne married Gilbert Nickalson in the same church, making the four generations of marriages. The Nickalsons' two children, the Lechners' great-grandchildren, were baptized in St. Benedict's making the fourth generation of baptisms.
"We have never lived away from that church," said Mrs. Lechner. " In all our lives we have never been away from it for more than a month. It seems like it's home. It's up there on that hill where you can see everything - it's really dear to our hearts."
"My feeling about the church," said Father Johnson, "is that these people have been worshipping on top of that hill for so long that it has become holy ground; they have made it a sacred place."
Stories and photos by Cyndi Jacobsen
*rewritten by-Judy Lechner Ison, April 24, 2001
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