Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A lot of Irish in Saint Thomas in Derrynane Township March 20, 2018

 

I APPROACHED THE BEAUTIFUL brick church with the full expectation that the doors would be locked. They were. There would be no getting inside St. Thomas Catholic Church on this St. Patrick’s Day. I felt disappointment, but not surprise.

 

 

 

A hot pink sign tacked onto the church sign notes an Easter vigil here on March 31.

 

Even though shut out, Randy and I still explored, circling this immense church with stained glass windows and with tower steepling to a cross.

 

 

We crunched across crusty snow to look at gravestones that bear the Irish history of this place in names like O’Malley, Shea, O’Connell and noted ancestral roots in Cork County, Ireland and elsewhere.

 

Driving into Saint Thomas, Minnesota.

 

This village lies in the middle of farmland with this farm site on the edge of Saint Thomas.

 

This ag business sits right next to the cemetery.

 

Then comes the town hall.

 

And, finally, Callahan’s, which appeared no longer in business.

 

Saint Thomas is through-and-through Irish, based on our observations of this unincorporated village along Le Sueur County Road 28 just north of Le Center in Derrynane Township. We found this settlement via an atlas that is our guidebook to mostly unknown places in Minnesota. With a name like St. Thomas, we expected a Catholic church and not much more.

 

 

The church, built in 1883, closed in January 2011, just another among many rural Catholic churches shuttered and merged. Mass is still held occasionally at St. Thomas.

 

 

I often wonder how long such mostly vacated churches will stand. St. Thomas appeared well-cared for still. At least on this St. Patrick’s Day in 2018. But when those who once worshiped weekly here are gone, will their descendants care? Will they still tend the cemetery, swing open the doors for an Easter vigil? I hope so.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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A drive in the Minnesota countryside takes me to St. Jarlath November 7, 2017

 

“SAINT JARLATH. Who’s that?” I asked my Catholic-raised and educated husband as we pulled up to a rural Minnesota cemetery during a recent Sunday afternoon drive.

 

 

He offered no information, as puzzled as me by the saint behind the name of St. Jarlath’s Catholic Cemetery located just off Waseca County Road 22 in Iosco Township. My later online research revealed Bishop Jarlath as the founder and principle patron of the Archdiocese of Tuam in Galway, Ireland. Irish names in the cemetery should have tipped us off.

 

 

I delight in discovering such well-kept rural cemeteries edged next to equally well-maintained churches. Clearly, people care deeply about this place. That pleases me although the closure of rural parishes like this one does not.

 

 

As we wandered the grounds, I spotted autumn décor adorning some gravesites. Seeing scarecrows on a tombstone marked a first for me.

 

 

I noticed, too, the trees,

 

 

the aged, and not so aged, stones,

 

 

the loving words

 

 

 

 

 

 

and clear markers of faith in crosses high and low.

 

 

I tugged at the church door, hoping to get inside. I never expect access. But that doesn’t stop me from trying. Gone are the days of unattended, open churches. I can only imagine the beauty, the history within this country church.

 

 

The ability to freely wander this cemetery on a stunning autumn afternoon tempered my disappointment. To see folks honor their ancestors and Saint Jarlath through a well-kept church and grounds encourages me. This place remains important—at least for now to those still living.

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AS I SCHEDULED this post, written days before the deadly mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, I feel compelled to add this postscript expressing my sorrow and thoughts. I cannot fathom the loss to these families, to this community, about the same size as my Minnesota hometown. My heart breaks. A church, of all places, should be a sanctuary from violence. No place seems safe any more.

Initial media reports reveal the perpetrator had a history of domestic violence and that he sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law shortly before killing 26 people and wounding another 20 at the church. This troubles me. Domestic violence continues to root deep into our society. I read or hear media reports daily about murder-suicides, violations of restraining orders, calls to domestic disturbances, stalking, assaults…and more. For every case reported to law enforcement, many many more are not reported. Because of fear. Because of intimidation. Because of control and manipulation.

The invasive crime of domestic abuse and violence is affecting too many of our families, our neighborhoods, our communities and, yes, even our churches, directly and indirectly.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling