Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Celebrating the Czech heritage at Veseli Ho-Down August 23, 2011

AROUND 10:15 a.m. we pull into Veseli, population 200, in northwestern Rice County and are directed to a parking spot on a ball field just below Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church. My husband Randy and I have barely exited our car when Fritz and young Joe arrive in their golf cart, offering us a ride around the block so we don’t have to climb the steep hill to the church.

We learn on the short jaunt that this marks the 44th annual Holy Trinity celebration, which began as a typical church festival but today has evolved into the Veseli Ho-Down.

A sign several miles from Veseli directs motorists to the Ho-Down.

A fest-goer sports a Veseli Ho-Down t-shirt.

It is an event complete with a polka mass, raffles galore, a chicken dinner, kids’ games, home-baked Czech goodies, bingo, entertainment by 11 musical groups and beer, lots of beer.

In between all the activity, you’ll catch snippets of the Czech mother tongue, spoken by the old-timers from Veseli, Lonsdale, Montgomery, New Prague and Webster.

But you needn’t be Czech, or even Catholic, to enjoy this event that swells Veseli’s population on this Sunday in August. I’m Lutheran and I’m German. Chat it up with those attending, and you’ll discover that many grew up in Veseli, or the area, and are back for the day to celebrate, support the church and mingle with family and friends.

John Hertaus Jr. and his wife, Joseth (she’s part French and has a name of French origin), coordinate the chicken dinner served from a tent to around 1,000 diners. Down the hill and around the corner by Novak’s Garage, volunteers grill the 514 chickens, which are then placed in surplus military issue containers and hauled on a wagon to the church grounds.

The Hertauses keep a watchful eye on the entire chicken dinner, which was added to the festival, along with the polka mass, about 20 years ago upon the suggestion of John Jr.’s parents, John Sr. and Rita.

Well before 11 a.m., attendees are already buying $10 tickets for the chicken dinner and filing into the sanctuary. By mass time, worshippers pack the pews, fill folding chairs along the side aisles and overflow into the church entry. Without a program—they ran out—I can’t follow the worship service, so I just sit and stand and fold my hands and bow my head when I am supposed to do so.

The polka mass begins.

A view from the balcony of Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church.

Soaring pillars, stenciling and stained glass windows define the sides of the church.

In this image, notice the details: the hats attached to clips on the back of the pew and the name tags, with parishioners' names, tagging the pew ends. I asked my husband, a former Catholic, about the name tags. He said that in some churches families rented pews. I don't know whether that is still practiced at Holy Trinity.

In between, I take photos, plastering myself against the thick support pillars that block my view of the altar area. I slip upstairs for awhile to get a bird’s eye view of the crowd. Back in my wall-hugging folding chair, I notice the details—the name tags attached to pew ends, the pew back clips for hats, the stenciled walls and ceiling, the stained glass windows, the time-worn wood, the cracked plaster walls, the ornate altar, the sway of hands and feet and bodies to music that seems more suited for an old-time dance than a church service.

Yet, even though I can’t understand any of the words sung with the concertina, trumpet, drums, keyboard and bass guitar due to acoustics and my hearing loss, I still feel spiritually uplifted by music that shouts praise instead of party.

Muzikante, pojd’te hart, tu pisnicku, co mam rad,

Dneska budem ja a moje pany, Panu Bohu dekovat.

Ted and Dorothy Winczewski drove two hours from Coon Rapids to celebrate their 57th wedding anniversary after reading about the polka mass in The Catholic Spirit. “It was just something to do, something spiritual,” Dorothy says. The polka music reminds her of the wedding dances she attended in New Prague while growing up in nearby Shakopee. “I loved it.”

Shoppers look over the mostly Czech baked goods filling tables in the church basement.

The mocha cakes we bought.

In the church basement, while perusing the tables covered with Czech and other treats like kolacky, buchta, koblihy and mocha cakes, I meet a native of nearby Montgomery now living in Bloomington who has orders from his coffee group to pick up poppyseed kolacky. He does.

Most of the goods are baked on-site. And, yes, my husband and I leave with koblihy (like raised doughnuts) and mocha cakes (absolutely divine yellow mini-cakes frosted on all sides and rolled in nuts).

As we wander the church grounds, I am struck by the universal age appeal of this festival. From weeks-old babes to those in their 90s, the Ho-Down draws everyone. And they are friendly lot.

Clarence Smisek

When I approach 88-year-old Clarence Smisek of New Prague, dressed in an ethnic costume as a long-time member of the New Prague Czech Singers, he flashes a broad smile and informs me that Veseli means “to be happy.” He’s right. I later check Google translate. This Czech, who grew up a mile south of Veseli, was baptized at Holy Trinity and up until recently gave tours of the church, seemed a happy fellow.

He also tells me that Smisek means “to smile,” although I can’t verify that.

Ask Clarence to define the Czech people, and he’ll tell you this: “They are hard-working people and they are generous.”

I agree, based on the hard work, time and energy that I know goes into planning and carrying out a successful festival like the Veseli Ho-Down.

But I’d add two more adjectives to Clarence’s description of the Czech. That would be fun-loving and friendly.

CONTINUE SCROLLING BELOW for more Ho-Down images and then check back for additional posts featuring festival photos. Also scan The Catholic Spirit, your local newspaper or elsewhere, and plan to attend a Minnesota church festival this fall.

The front of the historic 1905 Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Veseli.

I found cousins Kayla, right, and Brianna sitting on the bank of steep steps leading to the church entry. Kayla, who attends Holy Trinity, won a cake in the cake walk and later would help with clean-up at the tattoo station. Brianna was visiting from Zumbrota.

I waited in line for my chicken dinner next to Bradley, 15, of New Prague and his grandma, Janet, from Veseli. They picked up 11 dinners. Bradley didn't wear the hat just for the Ho-Down. He wears it every day.

My husband and I split a single chicken dinner (half a chicken.)

A volunteer staffs a Spin-the-Wheel prize booth that proved popular with kids. A blue tarp providing shade over the game area lends a bluish tint to this photograph.

A partial view of the festivities from the back side of the church.

The New Prague Czech Singers sing during the mid-afternoon, one of 11 musical groups who donated their time and talents. The youngest member of the group is her 50s and learned Czech from her grandmother.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling