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Though by no means a friend of the Catholic religion, Catherine the Great did not molest the Catholic colonists. Her commissaries had promised prospective settlers that they would always be supplied with ministers of their respective denominations, and this promise was faithfully kept. The people whose history we are writing were all Roman Catholics, and it is certain that even on their journey from Germany to Russia, priests accompanied them. Thus. for example, we read of a Father Corbinian, a Capuchin of Melniza, Bohemia, who in 1767 accompanied a group of emigrants from Kassimow to their new homes on the Volga, ministering to them in all their spiritual needs - baptizing infants, blessing marriages, administering the sacraments and burying the dead.
Once the colonies were founded, the first priests to minister to the spiritual needs of the newcomers were Franciscans and Capuchins. The nationality of these priests is doubtful, but all could speak the German language fluently, and were greatly beloved by the people on account of their deep spirituality and unassuming character. They were sent by the government, and, as seems most likely, came from St. Petersburg, Riga, Rival, Libau and various other cities of the Baltic provinces, where they were probably doing missionary work at the time the Gemans settled in Russia.
The Franciscans and Capuchins were soon followed by Dominicans and Trinitarians, all fervent priests, filled with love of God and zeal for the salvation of souls. Unfortunately for the colonists, these men soon died off, and in their stead the government sent Polish priests, entirely ignorant of the German language and out of sympathy with German customs and manners. Under their inefficient ministration, the colonists lost much of their zeal for religion. Apparently conditions became so bad that the settlers complained to the government, demanding priests who could speak German. As a result of this appeal, ten Jesuits, well versed in German, were sent to the colonies on the Volga, in 1803, and the Polish priests recalled. The Jesuits remained until 1820, when they were banished. Under their guidance the colonies underwent a religious renaissance, the effects of which were to last for years to come. It was during this period that the foundations were laid of that lively faith, touching devotion, and whole-souled adherence to the Catholic Church which even to this day characterizes the people.
For some unexplained reason the Jesuits were forced to leave in the fall of 1820. Once more Polish Regulars, Dominicans, Carmelites, Trinitarians, Vincentians and Lazarists, took charge of the colonists; For some reason or other they ministered to their flocks in a very haphazard manner, and were gradually supplemented and supplanted by secular priests from the various Polish dioceses. After the erection of the diocese of Tiraspol in 1847, German secular clergy gradually replaced their Polish brethren.
When the colonists arrived in Ellis County, there was no Catholic Church on the Kansas Pacific Railroad west of Salina. To offset this want as much as possible, the settlers erected a large wooden cross in each village, about which the entire community gathered for devotions on Sundays and holidays. Usually these devotions consisted in the recital of the prayers for Mass, the rosary, and litanies, together with religious hymns. This custom which, with the exception of Schoenchen, was universal in the colonies, was faithfully maintained until 1879.
The first priest to visit the colonies was Rev. Adolf Wibbert, who said Mass for the newcomers for the first time about April, 1876. At the time, he was stationed at Salina. In March he had paid a visit to Fort Hays, where he said Mass occasionally, and had promised to visit the new settlements on his next trip. From this time, until the advent of Rev. Valentine Sommereisen, he observed the following schedule: On the third Saturday of each month he held divine services in the public school at Ellis; on Sunday, in one of the barracks of Fort Hays; on Monday, at Liebenthal, to which place the inhabitants of Schoenchen and Munjor came; on Tuesday, at Herzog; and on Wednesday, at Catherine. In August, 1876, Rev. Martin Kuhn, then rector of Epiphany Church, Leavenworth, paid the colonies a single visit.
In October, 1876, Rev. Valentine Sommereisen took up his residence at Hays and assumed the spiritual charge of the colonies. These he visited regularly once a month until May, 1878. He was the first priest to visit Pfeifer.
On Jan. 31, 1878, Rt. Rev. Louis M. Fink, O.S.B., of Leavenworth, in whose diocese the colonies then lay, together with Rev. Hyacinth Epp, 0.M. Cap., at that time commissary of the Capuchins, who in 1873 had come to Pittsburgh, Pa., because of the "Kulturkampf" then at its height in Germany, visited Herzog; Bishop Fink had asked the Capuchins to take spiritual charge of the colonies, and - after some hesitation - the number of Capuchins being small - Fr. Hyacinth accepted. May 11, 1878, Rev. Matthew Hau, 0.M. Cap., and Rev. Anastasius Mueller, 0.M. Cap., established themselves at Herzog. Father Matthew died about a month later, and was succeeded by Rev. Joseph Cal. Mayershofer, 0.M. Cap. On Aug. 25, 1883, Bishop Fink entrusted to the Capuchin Fathers the spiritual care of all Catholics in Ellis County north of the Smoky Hill River. Three colonies south of the river, Pfeifer and Schoenchen in Ellis County and Liebenthal in Rush County, were at times in charge of the Capuchins, and at other times under the direction of the secular clergy. Of late years, however, the latter have taken permanent charge.
As remarked above, in the beginning services were held about a large cross erected at a convenient place in the village. With the advent of the priest, a private dwelling was used. Only later were churches of modest dimensions and equipment erected. At Herzog, the first church was a lean-to, built against the south side of Alois Dreiling's dwelling. It measured about 40x24 feet, and could accommodate but part of the congregation. At Munjor the first church was a frame building measuring 41x20 feet; in Schoenchen, the first house of God was likewise built of wood, but was smaller than the Munjor edifice, measuring 30x18x9 feet. These are typical of all the earliest churches in the colonies. Only with the passing of the years and the expenditure of much labor and sacrifice were the magnificent churches built which today are the pride and the joy of the villages.
Humble and lowly though the churches were, the spirit of genuine devotion and true Christianity of a surety dwelt in them. The attendance at divine service on the part of the settlers may be said to be exemplary. Many attend several or all the Masses on Sundays and holidays, as well as the afternoon services, Vespers and Benediction. The services on Candlemas Day (February 2), the feast of St. Blasius (February 3), and during Holy Week, are always well attended. On the feast of St. Mark (April 25), the Rogation days (the three days before feast of the Ascension), and the feast of Corpus Christi, every man, woman and child takes part in the procession which even today makes quite a large circuit when the weather permits. Formerly, however, they were much longer. Thus, for example, in the early days the procession from Catherine, Munjor and Pfeifer terminated at Herzog, a distance of from eight to ten miles, and the Herzog procession wended its way to Munjor. While marching, the people prayed the rosary and litanies, while the choir sang German and Latin hymns in honor of the Holy Eucharist.
The conduct of the people during the divine services was always very devout. On entering a pew the usual salutation was, "Gelobt sei Jesus Christus" (Praised be Jesus Christ). To the present day one may occassionally see worshippers praying with outstretched arms in honor of the five wounds of the crucified Savior. Whenever a member of the community died, the villages gathered together for the "Todten Wacht," during which the rosary was prayed every hour. At Catherine it was customary on the occasion of a death to ring the church bell at evening. This drew all the people to church, where they prayed a rosary for the repose of the soul of their departed brother. This was repeated each evening till the funeral.
As a general rule, children are brought to church for baptism soon after birth. Formerly only such names were given to them as could be found in duly approved "Legende der Heiligen" (Lives of the Saints). For girls, the name of the Blessed Virgin Mary was the general favorite, though St. Catherine, St. Margaret, St. Ann and St. Rose were frequently chosen as patron saints. For boys, the most common patrons were St. Joseph, St. John, St. Michael, St. Anthony and St. Francis. Quite frequently double names were given, such as Mary-Anna, Anna-Catherine, Anna-Margaret, John-Jacob, John-Joseph, John-George, etc. (In everyday use these were usually contracted into one: Marian, Ammerkret, Hansjakob, Hansjoseph, and Hansjoerg.)
1. Rev. Julius Becker, O.M. Cap. Served more than 10 years in the settlements 2. Rev. Adolph Wibbert, first priest to minister to the settlers 3. Rev. Anastasius Mueller, O.M. Cap., first Capuchin pastor in Ellis County, 1878 4. Rev. Leo Egger, O.M. Cap., active in the settlements for many years. Now pastor at Munjor, Kansas 5. Rev. Val Sommereisen, first resident priest in Ellis County, 1876-1878 6. Rev. Emmeram Kausler, O.M. Cap., builder of churches (Schoenchen, Emmeram, Walker and Herndon) 7. Rev. Mathew Savelsberg, O.M. Cap., known for his zeal and energy 8. Rev. Jerome Mueller, O.M. Cap., He spent most of his time, since his ordination, in the settlements. Recently returned to Germany 9. Rev. Fr. Maurus, O.M. Cap. For many years assistant at Herzog
Transcribed from The Golden Jubilee of German-Russian Settlements of Ellis and Rush Counties, Kansas, August 31, September 1 and 2, 1926