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It requires a theology to build a church like St. Anthony of Padua, in Hoven, SD. A couple of grain farmers don’t just get together over coffee at the Coop and decide to build a place like this. It requires a vision and a shared theology that’s sacramental, that’s based in the nothing less than a doctrine like transubstantiation, the belief that the only thing that’s bread and wine about the sacrament is its physicality. That really–nobody’s kidding about this–that what you take from the priest’s hands is nothing less than the real body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
St. Anthony’s visionary was Bavarian-born priest named Anthony Helmbrecht, a man who desired a cathedral not unlike the ones he remembered from his boyhood; so in early years of the 20th century he went door-to-door with an open hand until he collected enough to contract the artisans he wanted, then started to build this “Cathedral of the Prairie.”
Never heard of Hoven, SD? Most people haven’t. It’s in the middle of the vast reaches of Northern-Plains nowhere, population 400 in 2013. You have to drive a long ways out of the way to get there, but you can’t miss it once you do, St. Anthony’s twin towers reigning 140 feet up above a landscape so flat all around you can’t help think the world is.
Father Helmbrecht’s vision was gargantuan, but what’s just as impressive about St. Anthony’s is the way Hoven folks keep it up–and there are fewer of them all the time. When a renovation was needed in 1980, one contractor suggested plastering the walls. Another said he couldn’t guarantee a price, but it would likely be somewhere around half a million the congregation didn’t have.
So they did the work themselves–20,000 hours, four years’ worth, scaffolding all the way up to the ceiling–did you get that? up to the ceiling. Three times they moved the whole structure, disassembled it and rebuilt it again. Brides walked right through it at their weddings.
Saturday morning I was there just after eight, alone. St. Anthony’s sees thousands of visitors annually, but winter on the plains isn’t particularly touristy. I walked around with a camera, shooting hither and yon. The stained glass is beautiful, imported, created–can you guess?–in Bavaria.
In walked a silver-haired woman, a citizen of the Plains, the kind of woman marketing people might look for if they needed a peppery grandma. She politely served herself from the holy water in the hands of one of the two angels at the entrance, then started walking up front, and waved politely when she spotted me–I hoped I wasn’t doing anything wrong.
I’d been there a while and was ready to leave, so I walked out the back of the sanctuary and nodded at one of those angels, explained to her that I was a Calvinist, which she told me she understood, my not having taken the holy water when I came in–for which I was forgiven, I might add.
In the back, I spotted the old stairway to the balcony, highly polished oak, but of such vintage that I wondered if it was wise for a man of my considerable girth to take it. I did, because I wanted to see that almost divine sanctuary in all its splendor from on high. It is perfectly beautiful.
Now just imagine this–all that stenciling, all the decor that festoons the succession of arches–all of it redone by locals sitting way up there on pine scaffolding only barn builders could construct. Imagine that. Almost as beautiful as the sanctuary itself.
She came up after me, this grandma in jeans and sweatshirt. She’d put up hymn numbers on the signs up front, then came up behind me, the stairway giving her approach away with the kind of groaning you’d expect from steps coming up quickly on a century old.
She had to practice. She was the organist. She had to practice, and she just assumed that I was up here because, of course, I wanted to see the St. Anthony organ. I wasn’t about to tell her that that her 17-rank pipe organ wasn’t the end of my rainbow exactly, but it was clear from her bold direction that whether or not it was I would have to listen to her extol that instrument’s virtues in detail and see every last one of those 1100 pipes.
And then she spread her music out in front of her and took to the bench. If you’re like me, you may well assume that Grandma Custodian/Musician was a master, had studied, certainly, with the great cathedral organ masters in Bavaria, probably.
Well, no. In accomplishment, what she played was something somewhat less than stunning. Well, I’ll let you write the review.
She’s been playing in St. Anthony of Padua Church since 1949, she says, and here’s the real story: she is the very last one. Hoven’s lost 20 percent of its population since 2000, and there’s not a lot of call these days for organists. Guitar pickers?–sure. But organists? No line. No waiting.
So she’s last, at this organ, in this church. I want you to know that standing there beside her right then, knowing that, made the short program she was offering me in the Cathedral of the Prairie something beautifully masterful.
Here she is, proud as any grandma should be.
On that Saturday morning, I’d just come from a sitting out along the Missouri River in a perfectly glorious dawn, but just then the light up there in the choir loft of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, the Cathedral of the Prairie, could not have been much more divine.