Reflections of a country pastorBy: Msgr. William J. Stanton
The following first appeared in Sept. 29, 2006 edition of The Mirror.
The reason for these stories is simply because younger priests of our diocese have said, “You ought to write these tales down for future generations.”
For the most part, names have been changed or forgotten. I always tell each tale for entertainment value. But before I forget all of them, I’m using this means to write them down, not as an historical record, but as a way of thanking all the wonderful people whom I have been privileged to work with and serve. It has been a wonderful journey and a spectacular ride!
The baby priest and the brothel
The term “baby priest” was coined by Bp. Charles Helmsing, first bishop for the new Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau founded in August 1956. The class of 1956 was the largest ordination class for the St. Louis Archdiocese. There were 32 of us, if memory serves me correctly. Back then the custom was to encourage the virtue of humility. This meant that those of us who volunteered to teach high school went to the country parishes and those who said they would not teach under any circumstances were assigned to teach in the high schools in St. Louis.
We were told we would receive our first assignments within two weeks of our ordination, which was to take place on March 17, 1956, the Saturday before Passion Sunday, as it was called at that time. Since two weeks had passed and no assignments had been made, my parents and I left to pay a brief visit to our cousins, Hank and Virginia, in Helena, MT. After driving through a blizzard and arriving at a motel in Helena three days later, there was a phone message from my brother asking us to call him at home.
The long-awaited assignment had come. I was to go to the White Church Mission area of Missouri. Being a city boy, my first reaction was: “Where in the world is that?” I called my first pastor, then-Fr. Sylvester Bauer, from Helena and told him where I was. The assignment was to begin on April 14th and I still had to buy an automobile after returning to St. Louis. I asked if I could be a little late.
While he agreed to this, he told me it would be good if I could be there on the 14th since there would be a going-away and welcome party for the old and new assistant pastors. Unfortunately, I was not able to make it.
When I did arrive, Fr. Bauer welcomed me. Since he was busy working on several building projects, he could not show me around or spend much time telling me what my duties would be for a few days. I was excited about being able to do something creative. Celebrating Mass and administering the sacraments were creative, but at that time the Archdiocese of St. Louis provided prepared sermons which they wanted preached in each parish, certainly limiting creativity in that area.
The rectory was a big old house, I recall, on Caldwell Street in West Plains. My room was above the dining room. I could see the dining room table through the heat duct in my floor. This became handy when I woke up at two or three in the morning for a trip to the bathroom. If there was light filtering through the duct I knew the pastor had fallen asleep in a chair because he was overly tired. So, like a nurse in a hospital who wakes you up to give you a sleeping pill, I would wake him so he could go to bed.
My first assignment was to start instructing Mrs. Else in the faith. Her youngest daughter was in St. Joseph School in White Church. The lady thought she should learn about the faith her daughter was experiencing, with the idea that they might join the parish in West Plains.
Armed with a catechism, a Bible, and directions to the house, I drove to a rather poor section of town. The house was located on a gravel road. I pulled into the yard just as a toddler came running out and grabbed me by the hand. He led me to the back of the house.
“Strange,” I thought. We went up about three rickety steps and into the back door. Half way down a long hallway, the little boy stopped in front of an open door. Turning to go in and greet whom I thought would be Mrs. Else, to my surprise and embarrassment, there was a beautiful young woman on a bed … stark naked. Obviously she was waiting for a customer and the little boy thought I was that person. Hastily excusing myself, I made a retreat and went around to the front door of the house where I found Mrs. Else, a lady in her late ’40s or early ’50s. I suggested that it would be best if we met for instructions on the front porch.
You might say that my first missionary activity, a visit to a brothel, assured me that this would be an interesting life, albeit embarrassing at times. Msgr. Bauer laughs about this to this very day!
Sacred Heart Mission, Thayer
Sacred Heart Church was one block off the main drag in Thayer. I do not remember the name of the street. All I remember is if you parked on the street you had better park it in gear with the emergency brake firmly set. The old church was a wood frame structure. When the bell was rung on Sunday morning, you could see the sacristy wall shake.
There was no air conditioning, but there was a huge wood furnace in the dug-out basement and two gas-burning heaters in the main body of the church. There was no duct work in the church, so the heat would rise directly from a huge grate in the floor right in front of the Communion rail. I was very conscious of that grate. During the first wedding I performed, when the couple knelt, I was sure that one of us would drop one of the rings through the grate. (“Oh ye of little faith!”)
One never had to worry about the heat being turned on since we had two gentlemen who took care of the furnace. The problem was that they did not communicate with each other very well sometimes. I remember coming into the church one Sunday when the air temperature outside was about six degrees and was nearly knocked over by the heat when I opened the sacristy door at 8:15 a.m. to get ready for the 9 a.m. Mass. Mr. Bauer, an engineer on the railroad, started the old wood furnace when he came in off his run at 5:30 a.m., then went home to get ready for church. He planned to bank the furnace later on. In the meantime, another parishioner, Mr. Benbenick, from Myrtle, came into town and banked the furnace and turned on the gas heaters in the church. Mr. Bauer came back shortly thereafter, not knowing about Mr. Benbenick’s trip, and banked the fire again without going into church.
By the time I arrived the temperature was 95 degrees inside the church. It was so hot that it revived all the wasps that were having their winter sleep. By the time Mass was over I was wringing wet. But, by the time I reached my car to drive back to West Plains, my cassock sleeves had ice on them.
The people in town were wonderful. I remember Rosie Barns, who told one of her Baptist friends who could not understand how the liquor store could remain open when there were so few Catholics around, “You just need to stand at the back door someday. You’ll see how they stay open!”
Then there was Ruby McGuil, one of our faithful organists, a delightful, genteel lady, who told me all about the town when it was the turn-around spot for the railroad from Springfield to Memphis. She talked about how some of the old big bands came to Thayer to play for dances because of the railroad personnel. Ruby once played the music for silent movies.
Life in those days was always filled with excitement. I remember going to bed one night in the rectory and, after I had hardly fallen asleep, I heard a clicking sound. It sounded like it was coming from just above my head. I got up and turned on the light, still hearing the clicking sound. After looking around, I discovered that my predecessor had hung a cardboard box on the window frame. I looked in the box and found an inch and a half long scorpion. I sprayed it about three times with bug killer and I think it died only because it ended up sticking its stinger in its own back.
Hospital in Mountain View, and other tales
Sometime before my arrival in West Plains, the four padres who served the White Church Mission area had spent a great deal of their time writing to all the religious communities of hospital sisters in the US in order to find sisters for the hospital in Mountain View. Fr. Syl Bauer, Fr. Rocky Boland, Fr. Al Kavorick, and Fr. Raymond Orf had divided up the list and written to every community.
A few months before the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau was formed, the Daughters of St. Francis of Assisi in Lacon, IL, responded. The sisters had been praying for just such an opportunity to serve the church in the US after having escaped from Czechoslovakia, which was at that time an Iron Curtain country where they had been treated with little respect.
These very gentle and loving Czech Sisters made a big difference in Mountain View in a very short time. The folks who regularly got into bar-room brawls on Saturday nights and showed up at the hospital seemed to change their ways after being treated a few times by the sisters. The townspeople responded with thanks and demonstrated care for them by carrying their groceries and opening doors for them. They began to call them the “Good Sisters” and the “White Ladies” of the Ozarks, referring to the sisters’ habits.
The sisters were still learning the English language, however, which led to some interesting encounters. For example, a man who had been found lying by the side of the road was in pretty bad shape. He was brought in and, since the hospital was very crowded on that particular evening, he was put in a bed in the hallway. As Sr. Clara came by his bed, he said to her, “Hey lady, could you get me some Four Roses [whiskey]?” Sr. Clara looked at him rather quizzically, then went down the hall to the statue of St. Joseph, removed four roses from the dozen in the vase in front of the statue and brought them to the patient. To her surprise he began to curse and to swear.
Another occasion where the Czech accent somewhat inhibited understanding was when Fr. Stolzer and I came in one evening and encountered the dietician, Sr. Assunta. She was one of our favorites because she would always make sure that the priests got plenty of good food to eat. She looked at Fr. Stolzer, who served as the sisters’ chaplain, and said very solemnly, “Fr. Stolzer, you remind me of an oil!” “An oil?” Fr. Stolzer responded. “Oh yes, Father. You know, the wise bird with the big eyes!”
Then there was the time Fr. Stolzer’s successor, Fr. Nick Hirtz, came in with three skinned squirrels and asked Sr. Assunta to please put them in the refrigerator. She responded, “Oh no, Father! I don’t put rodents in my refrigerator!”
A pre-Christmas or Christmas meal with them was always an enjoyable event. The Sisters would entertain us by singing Czech carols as well as our own.
Before leaving the subject of the hospital, there is yet another humorous tale. A cleaning products salesperson was lookin for Fr. Bauer. One of the more unrestrained parishioners of St. John Vianney Parish in Mountain View directed the salesperson’s attention to Fr. Bauer, Fr. Orf, and myself as we were cleaining out the hospital’s septic tank, which had clogged up after many years of lack of attention. Pat, the parishioner, said to the salesperson, “You see that grubby old man with the red baseball cap out there in the field shoveling … (excrement)”? “Yes!” said the salesperson. “That’s Fr. Bauer, and those other two guys helping him are two of his assistant pastors.”
Those were some great times in the late ’50s! I remember what an avid card player Fr. Nick Hirtz was, although he was not very good. We went to supper in Winona one night. Morris and Rosemary had invited us to play pinochle. Rosemary put the dishes in the sink at about 6:30 p.m. and we began to play. At 10:30 p.m. I reminded Fr. Hirtz that I was about 50 miles from West Plains. I had to get up an hour earlier to start the old school bus behind the hospital in the morning. But Fr. Hirtz said, “I’m not leaving until we win a game!” Well, he finally gave up about 1 a.m. and we let those poor people go to bed!
Fr. Hirtz was from southeast Missouri. He was the first priest ordained for the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau. He was a rough sort of fellow with a heart of gold. I remember the time when one of the reprobates Fr. Hirtz ministered to while chaplain at the hospital died in a house fire. He was almost beside himself watching the fire. All he could do was give him absolution from afar.
Fr. Hirtz occupied a little two-room house that was bought to house the hospital chaplain because of the shortage of rooms and beds at the hospital. His house was so cold in the winter that he slipped on ice getting out of the shower one day. One Sunday he showed up in West Plains after his Sunday Masses and he was rather upset. When I asked him what was the matter he pulled up his pants leg to show me how he had burned his leg on a space heater trying to keep warm in his house while dressing.
Fr. Hirtz also had a dog which he kept in the house when he was on the road to other parishes. Bp. Helmsing stopped by to visit him one day to see how things were going. The bishop noticed that the dog had tried to chew his way out of the bathroom. He said to Fr. Hirtz, “Why don’t you get your dog a doghouse?” Fr. Hirtz responded, “Bishop, why don’t you get me a house and we will let the dog have this one!”
With the formation of the new diocese, Ozark County was added to the missions being served out of West Plains. The church in Ozark County was located in Udall, which was about five miles out of Bakersfield and about six to eight miles north of the Arkansas line. The priest who celebrated Mass in White Church usually took care of the Mass in Ozark County. It fell to my lot to say one of the first Masses there.
The only reason there was a church in Udall was that the local resort owner built the church and rectory with the hope of enticing a priest to celebrate Mass for the owner’s Catholic wife. I don’t believe the plan worked very well.
The first time that I celebrated Mass in this little church it had rained the night before and most of the parishioners (13 families) figured that the low water bridges would be covered. The whole congregation consisted of one nice little old lady that morning.
On a another Sunday, one of the young boys from St. Joseph in White Church came along with me to serve Mass. We were to go to his folks’ houseboat for dinner afterward. When collection time came, my server, Tommy, dutifully took it up. After Mass he told me, “Fr. Stanton, the whole collection was 75 cents!” Then, he added, “I put in the half-dollar.” Obviously an 80-mile round trip was not going to be paid for by the collection in Udall.
It was not long until we were able to figure out that a new church was needed where we found most of the Catholic people. We found only 26 Catholic families in Ozark County and most of them lived around Gainesville. We hoped that if the church were closer, more people might attend with some regularity. Since that time, the parish has grown.
Fishermen and tourists frequented the Gainesville area. Property needed to be bought and a church built. We laughed about the first church in Gainesville because summer was fast approaching and we needed to get a building ready fairly quickly. We hoped the tourists would give us a boost in income during the summer months. There was an old house on the property and we priests got together, tore out a few walls, papered the inside with a cardboard finish, and painted it. One of the sloped-roof bedrooms was the sacristy and the other was the confessional. Because of the slope of the roof, when you heard someone enter the confessional you felt you had to tell them to duck.
The first Mass celebrated in this building had 60 people inside and another 65 standing outside looking in the windows, if I remember rightly. The collection was much better. It was not long before we began to build the new church with the help of the Catholic Church Extension Society. We originally want to call the church St. Theresa (The Little Flower); however, since we received a grant from the Extension Society, the parish was called St. William since the executive director was Bp. William O’Brien.
There was difficulty in getting property that had access to the highway. I remember going to see an old fellow, who happened to be Catholic but not practicing. He had bought all the little corners cut off by the then-new Highway 60. He was willing to give them to us if the owner of the property did not give us easement. At that time, the area was very anti-Catholic and it took the threat of a lawsuit to finish the property deal.
One day Fr. Bauer and I pulled into the parish grounds to see what the builders had accomplished. As we turned in the drive, Fr. Bauer said, “Holy cats, look at that!” (or something to that effect.) The men laying the foundation laid it even with the lay of the land. When Fr. Bauer asked them if the had used the transit to sight it level, they showed him how it looked through the transit. They had only one problem. They never leveled the transit to begin with!
The best stonemason in the territory could not work for us because he did not want to lose his benefits. But the church was finally built.
During the course of building the church, we were visited by a local preacher, who would eat a quick lunch and then read his Bible. We were laying the cork floor and after we got about two-thirds finished, I got off my knees, turned around, and looked back to see how well the job was going. “Now that looks pretty good, even if I do say so myself,” I said. Our minister friend asked, “You know what the Good Book says about that, don’t you?”
I responded, rather puzzled, “No, what does the Good Book say about that?”
He quipped, “He who toots his own horn will wear down his battery!”
Grinding out the miles
With Ozark County having become a part of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardau, this meant that a priest who helped the pastor at St. Mary in West Plains had to take over Ozark County and points west as part of his territory.
What this meant is that I, as that priest, went all the way to Protem, to visit parishioners and prospects for joining the Catholic Church. Oftentimes this was because some of our parishioners worked in or ran resort facilities. It became necessary to visit them in their places of business. Obviously some of them did not want the priest coming in when the place was really humming with people. Because of that, I would try to arrive later in the evening when things were winding down. That way I could have a little privacy while visiting. This meant that I might be as far away as 75 miles from my bed in West Plains close to midnight. Good! But NOT good
One of the problems with driving 45,000 miles a year was that it became very hard to stay awake. So I used to make it a practice, after the businesses closed, to drive by parishioners’ homes to see if they still had a light on. Then, if it was on, I’d knock softly so as not to wake anyone sleeping in the house. If they answered, I’d ask them to fix me a cup of instant coffee. Of course, many times, they just fixed a pot of regular for me.
It was a very dangerous thing, of course, to be out on those winding roads late at night. It was also an imposition on parishioners who happened to be home with a light on. I had also developed a terrible caffeine habit, drinking about 25 cups of coffee a day. I was still falling asleep at the wrong time. Every so often I’d wake up to the sound of gravel hitting my fenders.
Larry and Jean were one of those great couples who made the many hours on the road worth the effort. Larry came to Gainesville as the first music teacher in the Gainesville School, if I remember correctly. In three years, he took the school from no music program to getting number one ratings for the band and many of the individual musicians. Larry and his family were popular with the youngsters. His students were exposed to a Catholic family and were surprised to find out that they did not have horns, as they had been told about Catholic people.
Being Catholic lost the job for Larry. He applied for a new job in a public school where almost all the families in the district were Catholic, although the superintendent was Baptist. The superintendent called the head man in the Gainesville school district to find out why they were letting such a valuable person get away from them. The answer he received was, “Well, he is a Catholic and that makes him a bad influence.” Later, Larry and Jean heard from the superintendent’s secretary that she could hear the Baptist superintendent in the Catholic district giving the Gainesville superintendent a royal cussing.
Larry and Jean had delightful children. When I knew them, the three boys were all teenagers. One of them had to sleep in an iron lung at night. Then there was Peggy, who was cute a pig’s ear and still in diapers when I met them.
I remember in St. William Church in Gainesville there was no pulpit at first. So, after the Gospel reading, the Gospel book would be placed on the Communion railing before beginning the sermon. I distinctly remember doing that and having little Peggy run up to the Communion rail, grab the book, and run back to her dad with it. He almost fell off the pew laughing. So much for getting friendly with two- or three-year-olds!
Penned by Msgr. Stanton, these reflections were edited by Marilyn Vydra.