By Eddie O’Neill
Catholic Christianity’s roots run deep in Vienna, the county seat of Maries County.
Some of them lead back through Rich Fountain and Westphalia, from which a handful of Catholic families ventured south in the mid-1800s in search of a place to call their own.
They brought their faith, built a church, celebrated the sacraments and most importantly formed a faith-filled community.
That community, Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish, is as strong today as it was at its founding 150 years ago.
“Thank you for caring enough about the past generations of disciples and faith sharers, that you wanted to remember them in such a special way,” said Fr. Joseph Corel, vicar general for the Diocese of Jefferson City and presider at Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish’s Sesquicentennial Mass on June 17.
Drawing from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16, in which Jesus declares Peter to be the foundation rock of the Church, Fr. Corel noted that Visitation has been a rock and will remain a strong foundation for generations to come.
“When the current and next generations know this, believe this and live this, then this church will stand; this church will not see the gates of the netherworld prevail against it,” Fr. Corel proclaimed to a capacity congregation.
Joining Fr. Corel at the altar were: Father Matthew Flatley, pastor of the Vienna and Brinktown parishes; Father Donald Antweiler, pastor of Immaculate Conception in Jefferson City and former pastor in Vienna; Father John Schmitz, administrator of the Laurie and Versailles parishes and former pastor of the Vienna, Brinktown, Argyle and Koeltztown parishes; Father Boniface Nzabonimpa, pastor of the Brunswick, Hurricane Branch and Indian Grove parishes, formerly of Vienna; and Father Hillary Andebo, a hospital chaplain in Jefferson City. Assisting them was Deacon John A. Schwartze of Cathedral of St. Joseph in Jefferson City.A talented choir of parishioners young and old led and accompanied the music and hymns.
Fr. Corel called to mind the countless baptisms, confessions, Holy Communions, confirmations, weddings and funerals Visitation parish has witnessed over the past century and a half.
“With each generation,” said Fr. Corel, “the new generation came to believe in the forgiveness of sins in the sacrament of reconciliation; the reality of Jesus Christ present to us in the Eucharist, the coming down of the Holy Spirit at confirmation; the indissoluble union of man and woman becoming one at their wedding vows; the hope of resurrection and the promise of Jesus as they buried their loved ones.
“And these are the things that happened at the church,” Fr. Corel stated. “For 150 years, the people have been taking these teachings and beliefs into their day-to-day living.”
Jesuit missionary priests were among the first to minister to Catholics in the Vienna area, offering Mass and the sacraments in local homes.
Jesuit Father John Baptist Goeldlin, once known as “The Apostle of Maries County,” in 1859 encouraged the people to build a simple church, where he offered Mass once a month.
That Mass station grew into a parish in 1867, under the leadership of Father J.W. Graham, and a new church was built in town.
In 1893, while Father Henry A.B. Kuennen was pastor, the parish opened a Catholic school, which remains in operation.
The present church, lovingly maintained and recently restored, was built in 1909 after its predecessor burned.
Drawn to His altar
Referring to the upcoming 125th anniversary of Visitation Inter-Parish School, Fr. Corel noted how the parish’s sacramental life and teaching ministry have been nourishing one another for all that time.
“For 150 years, people have been coming down the aisle to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, and for 125 years, children have been educated in the faith at this school,” he said. “Just as in the Book of Ezekiel, the Good Shepherd gathered His sheep around Him in good pastures, so has the Lord God blessed these people with good pastures and a grand place to gather them at His altar to be nourished by the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of His dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ!”
The Mass was just the start of a full day of activities around the church grounds.
Children played games in the schoolyard, while moms and grandmas perused the handmade quilts on display in the Knights of Columbus Hall.
The Osage Cloggers strutted their fancy footwork on the school sidewalk, while fathers and sons checked out the hot rods and tractors parked at the nearby cruise-in.
Of particular interest was a museum in the basement of the current, 1909-vintage church building.
Since mid-April, longtime parishioner John Viessman had been setting up the impressive display of historical photos and artifacts from the parish and school that had been preserved over the past 150 years.
Showcased were statues, prayer books, traditional cassocks, and sacramental photos and mementos offering vignettes of parish life over the decades.
An antique wooden desk with an array of tattered, grade-school readers represented some of Visitation’s rich school history.
Equally impressive were a set of wooden printing blocks set up with other vintage printing press items. They are from the Home Adviser, a local newspaper that was founded and published in the early 1900s by former pastor, Father John Fugel.
Many of the items on display were from Mr. Viessman’s personal collection of church artifacts. He has made it his mission to keep these timeworn mementos from being scattered and discarded through the decades.
Among them are oil paintings of the four Evangelists depicted on canvas, which were once mounted on the walls of the Visitation sanctuary.
He also rescued a wooden tabernacle from the 1940s.
“Let’s just say I learned a lot in putting all of this together,” he said with a smile. “We still had people bringing stuff to be displayed up until this morning.”
Donning a black top hat and matching vest, Visitation’s elder statesman, Sylvester Buschmann, was a celebrity of sorts in the museum, and rightfully so.
He’s been a parishioner for 85 years.
“My birth parents dropped me off here when I was 3,” said the soft-spoken Mr. Buschmann in between greetings and hugs from fellow parishioners.
“This place has been my life,” he said. “I have no complaints. This is a marvelous place.”
Across the street from the church, folks young and old toured the venerable school building.
Among them was Sister Betty Myers, a School Sister of Notre Dame who served at the school from 1994 to 2000, both as a teacher and a principal.
“It’s been great,” she said. “There are a lot of memories here, and I’ve seen a lot of familiar faces. It’s been a homecoming of sorts.”
Old class photos lined the hallway of the school as alumni gawked and chuckled at grade school mugshots of friends and foes and swapped tales of the sisters who had taught them.
“The school looks better than when I was here,” said Tim Barnhart, who graduated from Visitation in 1969. “They’ve done a great job.”
The school had 44 students during the 2016-17 school year and will add two more for the upcoming academic year, according to school secretary, Cindy Ewers.
Most of these are from Visitation parish and neighboring Holy Guardian Angels parish in Brinktown.
“I married into this parish family,” Mrs. Ewers said. “My husband and his siblings all went here and we sent our two children through here.
“As teenagers and young adults, our kids couldn’t wait to get away from here,” she said. “But they’re all back and have come to appreciate the simple life.”
Parishioner Betty Wulf offered a similar sentiment.
“I love the fact that my children are attending the same school that their mother, grandfather and great-grandfather attended many years ago,” she said. “I am very proud to share stories with my boys about the history of the church and our ancestors who helped build it.”
The next 150
The daylong celebration took close to two years to plan and prepare for, but according to Visitation parishioner and event organizer Lisa Jones, it was well worth the effort.
“One of the unexpected outcomes that we observed was that it took every single parishioner to make it all happen,” she shared. “What was especially notable was that the parishioners who worked the hardest in the final days to prepare for this event were the direct descendants of the ancestors — most of them common farmers or shopkeepers — whose names were documented as having built the church and school. How awesome is that!”
Fr. Flatley was touched and moved by the day as well.
But he emphasized in his closing remarks at the morning Mass that there is still work to be done in the mission fields of Maries County.
“‘I’m not satisfied to just limp along,” he said. “We have to bring more passion to this place. We are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Let us show Christ in one another by being temples of the Holy Spirit and by being alive with passion and fire!”