May Day celebration at St. Ludger’s Chapel

St. Ludger’s Church in Germantown, now a mission of Immaculate Conception Parish in nearby Montrose, is the site of an evening Mass, hog roast and blessing held every May 1 to commemorate the “Germantown Miracle of 1874.” (Photo courtesy Carol McLaughlin )

By Carol McLaughlin and Marty Denzer

GERMANTOWN, Mo. — What better way to celebrate the month of May, the month of Mary and, in Germantown, the month of a miracle that happened 144 years ago, than with a meal and a Mass?

The historic St. Ludger’s parish in Germantown dates its founding to 1833, although parish records began in Dec. 1832 when a Dekon Tiof baptized John Freyrik. The first resident pastor, Father Henry Meinkmann, was assigned by Bishop Joseph Rosati of St. Louis in 1840.

The first church was built of logs on unsurveyed land and lost to the parish when the surveyor claimed it. A second log church built in 1842 served the parish until 1858. The 1992 Diocesan history This Far By Faith, by Father Charles M. Coleman, says that a school had begun in the church building by 1849, with two subjects taught, the Catechism and German.
According to “Germantown and St. Ludger’s, 1833-2002,” written by Donna (Koch) Talbott, who grew up in the area, the town was organized by Mayor Mark Stewart, a physician, in 1857. Farmers, many of them devout Catholics, settled near the church. Soon Germantown was flourishing.

By 1858, the church had become too small for the growing congregation, and it was decided to build a new church. The cornerstone was laid and blessed later that same year, and the completed church was dedicated in 1859. The congregation had decided to name the new church St. Ludger’s, honoring the first bishop of Westphalia, Germany, where many of the settlers in the area were from, and so it was.

During the Civil War, a Union Army company of 110 soldiers commandeered the church and were quartered in it for two years, doing considerable damage to the building. The parish later filed a claim with the U.S. government for the damages. After the war, the congregation continued to use the church for devotions and holy days, saying rosaries, litanies and singing hymns.

In 1867 a combination school and parish house was built and in 1873, Sister Mary and Sister Therese, two Precious Blood Sisters of the community in O’Fallon, Mo., came to teach at the school and stayed two years.

Nearby Montrose was founded in 1871 when the Missouri, Kansas and Texas (MKT) Railroad (or the Union Pacific, Southern Branch), known as The Katy, located track nearby. Germantown, which was located four and one-half miles northwest, was at the time a thriving village of about 250 residents, many of them farmers. The village was also the business center of a fairly large territory. In 1870, Germantown had three goods stores, one furniture store, two grocery stores, one drug store, two blacksmith shops and one saloon. Germantown seemed to have a bright future, but the location of the railroad three miles away attracted people to the present site of Montrose, including several former Germantown businessmen. The online history of Montrose says that some ancestors of current residents arrived by Orphan Trains in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In May 1874, area farmers sowed wheat, oats and corn on cleared land and watched the seeds sprout and grow. Then, that August, a huge swarm of grasshoppers/locusts descended on the crops and devoured them, as well as stripping trees of leaves, feasting on other plants and quilts and clothing placed on plants to try to protect them. The “plague” had started in the drought-stricken southwestern Canadian Rockies and millions of the insects had headed south through Minnesota, Michigan, the Dakotas, Iowa into Kansas and finally into West Central Missouri. In a history of 1874, the “Year of the Grasshopper,” a farmer was quoted, “quipping grimly, ‘They ate everything but the mortgage.’”

Distraught farmers from up to 6 miles from Germantown, “rushed [in]to the church and made a solemn promise before the Blessed Sacrament to keep May 1 holy if they would be averted from this plague,” according to Talbott’s book.

As the prayer service concluded, the sky darkened as the grasshoppers flew away. The relieved farmers replanted their crops and celebrated a successful harvest that autumn. The insects had caused more than $200 million in crop destruction from Canada southward, but Germantown and Montrose were spared the total devastation they left elsewhere.

For more than 140 years, Catholics in Germantown and surrounding communities “kept May 1 holy.” Three pastors, Fathers Joseph Hellwing, Francis Kueper and John Hennes, followed by priests of the Precious Blood religious order, helped the farmers keep that promise.

The church we see today was built in 1921, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. It is an Italianate Romanesque Revival church in which brick and stone are combined for both practical and decorative uses. There are two bells in the tower, the first purchased in 1892 and the second in 1904. According to the Historic Register documentation, “As with the construction of the previous churches, the parishioners worked together to raise this new church. Emmett Kling, Sr., whose grandfather was a German immigrant, directed much of the stone work and trained parishioners to cut and lay up the stone foundations. Kling was a second generation stonecutter whose company, Kling Memorials, had shops in Nevada, Butler and Lee’s Summit.”

For 115 years, each May 1, the Blessed Sacrament was exposed for the entire day for public adoration. In 1990, St. Ludger’s Church was closed and became a mission of Immaculate Conception Parish in Montrose. The day-long Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament was discontinued. Instead, an evening Mass was celebrated, followed by a procession around the church, “flinging holy water” in all directions, to bless the crops and farmlands.

Nowadays, the evening Mass is held on the closest Saturday to May 1, this year falling on May 5. Just prior to the Mass, a donor hog roast dinner was held in the church hall in the basement of St. Ludger’s.

Father Tom Hermes, pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Montrose, was thrilled with the crowd of 80-100 people who attended the hog roast meal and the Memorial Mass, said Carol McLaughlin, parishioner and author of a tri-fold pamphlet, “The Germantown Miracle.”

She wrote, “His homily was one I’ll never forget. He hit the nail on the head, made his point when he stated that the gospel message was about Jesus going about in the crowd curing the ill and healing people. ‘Here in this church, we don’t have to search the ancient stories to find truth about Jesus’s miracles, we have our very own contemporary miracle to ponder and to be in awe of God’s covenant with us and a very visible sign of His Love.’ Fr. Tom’s voice trembled when he made that powerful statement and he was very moved … that we were sitting in St. Ludger’s Church, after over 140 years, still remembering our forefathers’ promise to God. He was very pleased to be a part of this holy tradition, and his face was beaming.”

McLaughlin included some details about attendees and the blessing of the fields. Franciscan Servant of the Holy Family Sister Doris Engeman attended, drove in from Lawrence, Kan. to be present with her family; her sister, Cathy Engeman, drove in for this event from St. Louis, MO. They both said, “they wouldn’t miss this Mass for anything.” Three siblings always, she said, come from Kansas City: Eloise, Velda, and Frieda Tilling, in memory of their mother, Eva Tilling, who lived in Germantown all her life.

McLaughlin’s brothers own some farmland just a half mile south of the Church. “My brother John said that when Fr. Tom blessed the south fields, he was sure that Fr. Tom’s enthusiasm had flung the holy water that far, or the splashes onto his son Keon, serving and assisting Fr. Tom on his right side, were plentiful blessing for his family.”
She commented on the attending crowd “as we followed Fr. Tom around all four sides of the Church during his blessing of the fields. Even though there were about 50 people in the 8 p.m. procession, it was a very quiet, prayerful, thoughtful group, listening to the invocation and responding with ‘Amen’ as dusk was falling.” Just picture it, and it has been happening every year since 1875. o

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Friday
October 19, 2018
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph