Cathedrals of Cedar County
19th-century German Catholics built these towering churches with pride
Many generations of Catholics have worshiped in Cedar County. Left, Saints Peter & Paul Church, Bow Valley.
Alan J. Bartels
For many people who live in this scenic stretch of northeastern Nebraska amongst its green sea of farms and hills that roll on like ocean waves, it seems like this land is a gift from God. But there are also some other wonders rising up here near the Missouri River that are a gift from man to God.
They are known as the Cathedrals of Cedar County, and these massive monuments of stone and wood and brick were built more than 100 years ago thanks to the brains and brawn of devoted German Catholics who settled this land in the 19th century. Technically, these spectacular structures can’t be called cathedrals since they are not an official seat of a Nebraska bishop, but when you gaze upon these awesome architectural achievements grown from the sweat and souls of these brave immigrant farmers, you could just as easily describe these mystical creations as pyramids of the prairie.
By the late 1850s, these German families from Prussia began moving to this unsettled territory, close to what is now South Dakota. They brought with them a burning drive to work the land, and a deep, devoted Catholic faith they clung to through brutal blizzards, fierce flooding, and devastating outbreaks of diphtheria that saw some families lose four children in a day to the deadly disease.
The first Mass in Cedar County was in 1862, and it was celebrated in a log house by a priest who traveled hundreds of miles up from Nebraska City. Within a year, these settlers had built a log church by Bow Creek, a couple of miles south of what is now St. Helena. The log church has been gone forever and a day, but towering above this village for more than a century is one of the three religious landmarks of this region.
The immigrants who planted their dreams here hoped the river and train traffic would soon deliver bustling metropolises all over this land, so massive churches were built in the heart of these communities to greet the great flow of immigrants who never arrived. They were wondrous houses of worship that local farmers built by loading up wagons in South Dakota with concrete, timber and stained-glass windows safely blanketed in oats and straw. Then these determined drivers would urge their horses on over the ice of the frozen river.
There are pretty country churches about every 10 miles throughout Cedar County, but the three legendary cathedrals that still shine on are Immaculate Conception in St. Helena, Saints Peter & Paul Church in Bow Valley, and Menominee’s St. Boniface, a church rebuilt in 1902 after a fire. St. Boniface still rests on an 1886 stonewall foundation of chalk rock farmers cut out of a creek bed near the Missouri River.
“Every ethnicity has a certain flavor about things,” said Father Eric Olsen after a New Year’s Eve Mass at Immaculate Conception. “But the one thing about the Germans is that they have a very strong work ethic, and they have a tendency when they put their minds to something to see it through.”
The young priest doesn’t look far removed from his high school days in a small Nebraska town near Fort Calhoun, but he is the pastor of this regional church community that in 2000 reorganized several communities into the Holy Family Parish, which includes the churches in St. Helena, Bow Valley, and his home base of Sacred Heart Church in Wynot. The priest knows this parish would not survive without the dedicated volunteer efforts of his faithful flock to keep these churches looking beautiful.
“They basically have teams that have been passed down from generation to generation that come by every month,” Olsen said. “People show up and get stuff done. It’s a remarkable thing. I’ve never had to ask for help yet.”
TWO OF THOSE LOYAL church volunteers are Lloyd Sudbeck and his wife, Janice, who for decades ran a service station near their home in Bow Valley. Both come from families who were some of the earliest German pioneers in the region, and the stories of their perseverance have been passed through the generations.
“The religion was really strong,” said Janice, whose Becker family in 1859 moved onto land seven miles up the road at the creek near St. Helena. “It was tough times and their faith was very important to them. The many churches in our area are a very concrete way to join together to worship.”
While Janice grew up attending St. John the Baptist in Fordyce, Lloyd’s family started farming the Bow Valley area in 1867, and Sts. Peter & Paul has always been part of their circle of life. The hillside cemetery looks up at the spectacular spire and rounded arches and the grotto of Our Lady of Fátima. It is where his great-great-grandparents were buried more than 100 years ago, and Lloyd has heard generations of family tales of how farmers endured to keep the faith.
“People sacrificed a lot to get to church,” Lloyd said. “If there was a blizzard, they’d have three or four farmers get together and have a prayer service. They’d say the rosary and different prayers. They didn’t have a Mass because the priest wasn’t there.”
It was one of Janice’s distance cousins who is the reason the majestic churches of Bow Valley and St. Helena stand over the valley. Heinrich Stuckenhoff immigrated to Hartington in 1883 at the age of 21 after helping complete the construction of Germany’s famed 13th-century Cologne Cathedral. When he died in 1960, Stuckenhoff was Hartington’s oldest resident, and the heralded “Builder of Northeast Nebraska.”
He first built the Holy Trinity Church in Hartington in 1886, but that beautiful structure was destroyed by a fire in 1950, and the current church was rebuilt in 1967 across from Cedar Catholic High School. But of all his creations, it is the Bow Valley and St. Helena churches that remain his crowning glories.
Immaculate Conception was designed in a bold Gothic Revival style, and completed in 1897, including a gabled roof and bell tower with four crosses and clocks. In 1910, a star tower clock was added to play chimes in four directions. Sts. Peter & Paul Church was completed on Thanksgiving Day in 1904, with a Romanesque Revival style that devoted parishioners remain forever thankful for.
The sounds in these churches are just as divine as the sights here, including the two rare mechanical pipe organs that have been playing in the choir lofts for more than 100 years. The tracker organ in Bow Valley was installed in 1904, but the organ purchased for Immaculate Conception in 1910 has even more rows of keys and is believed to be an even rarer instrument.
“There’s no comparison to the organs that you have now,” said Lynn Bernstrauch of Norfolk, a daughter of the Sudbecks who played both organs at services while attending Cedar Catholic High School. “It is incredible, the sound. I don’t know how you can describe it.”
It’s been years since Lynn has touched those keys, but the organs echo on, just like the stories.
There was Father Birnbach of Bow Valley, who grew up in Germany, the son of a mason, and he showed his parishioners how to hand drill fuses into rocks and then blast them apart to use as the foundation stones at Sts. Peter & Paul.
Then came the decades of dedication from St. Boniface parishioner Lawrence Tramp. He volunteered his carpentry skills for the church during the 1930s drought, and in 1941 Tramp painted the silver cross atop the 108-foot-high Menominee church. In 1982, a crane planted a man atop the church again. It was 72-year-old Lawrence Tramp, rising up to repaint the cross.
Today in Bow Valley, that spiritual pride rings through the inspiring efforts of brain cancer survivor Clair Hochstein. The former football lineman for Cedar Catholic was a strapping young man when the brain tumor was first found in 1995, and the relentless assault of surgeries and strokes have taken their toll. But a couple of years ago, Hochstein decided to put one foot in front of the other and march uphill to his Sts. Peter & Paul Church, say the rosary, and then pull on the big rope to ring the heaviest bell.
He pulled again and again, making the beautiful sounds. It sang out over the valley, just like when he was a third-grader helping his great-grandpa ring the same bell.
“All I could do is make a really weak fist with my left hand,” Hochstein said. “But I thought, ‘Wow, I can make a fist. I guess it means I’m a fighter.’”
Just like generations before him, Hochstein fights on, answering the bell in life, sustained by his faith. And if he grows weary, there is a shining place on a hill where he is always welcome.
See the November/December 2012 issue of Nebraska Life for more.