“Kiss Me, I’m Irish Today”
“Kiss Me, I’m Irish!” Well, actually don’t because I’m honestly German. But, for one special day of the year, I can be Irish.
I grew up, and am still growing up, outside a small town in northeast Kansas called Lillis. My bet is that you’ve never heard of it. The town has a population of around ten people, so it’s not likely to make a huge dent in our lives as we know it. Lillis is known for two things, the parties that used to be held at the gym in the town, and its St. Patrick’s Day parades. Now, although the Lillis Gym parties would make for an interesting story, I am not about to get into those details… besides, that was way before my time!
Photos By Emily Boeckman
The biggest event that happens in Lillis nowadays is the St. Patrick’s Day parade. To give a little background of why this is so important to the community I will explain a little of Lillis’s history.
Lillis was founded in the mid-1800s along the Irish Creek. Several Irish Catholic families settled along the river, and gave it the name it still bears today. In the book “The Frankfort Story,” the author says this: “An early missionary described the 12 log cabins built along the creek lined with beautiful spreading trees as like a dream after passing over many miles of uninhabited prairies and seeing no one. It provided a haven of rest and hospitality for the weary priests and travelers.”
In 1872 the very first Catholic church was built near Lillis. This church was dedicated to St. Joseph, and by 1888 the parish had grown to an overwhelming 80 families. This church quickly became too small, and construction of the next, larger church started in 1912, but crop failures and hard times of the Lillis residents made completing the church impossible until 1916. The massive stone church was dedicated on May 10, 1916. This church still stands today, and mass is still held there regularly.
So, as you can tell, Lillis is very rich in culture. You may wonder though, however did a German family get mixed in with all these Irish people? Well, around the same time that the wave of Irish Catholic families swept in, a wave of German Catholic families swept into the area also, and in sharing the common factor of their religion, they got along quite well.
Little Lillis is nothing like the large town it used to be, except for on Saint Patrick’s Day. Each year, on the Saturday closest to St. Patrick’s Day, the infamous Lillis St. Patrick’s Day Parade is held. It may not rival the parades of such towns like Manhattan or Topeka, but this one has a much stronger sense of community. This feeling of togetherness is present in each float as they make their customary two laps around the one block that is present day Lillis, it is present in the child picking up candy off of the dusty gravel road, and it is present in the senior citizen who has been coming to this event for many years of his or her life.
The parade draws many of the family members who once grew up in Lillis, but parted from each other for bigger opportunities, and more excitement than this little town had to offer. There are heartfelt hugs as old classmates of the Lillis Lions are spotted, and families rejoice as they see other members who have been away from them for the past year. Everyone gets along, and I have never seen a fight at one of these parades.
Although the actual parade can only boost about fifty units on a good year, these people are the heart and soul of the celebration. The parade always begins with the color guard, then the horses, and from there you are allowed to join in wherever you want. Many times young children from the Lillis area will decorate their bicycles and ride in the parade. I was once one of these children. Nothing is turned down. I remember a few years ago someone had dyed a pig green and was walking it in the parade. Along with new floats, there are also floats that make the rounds every single year. These floats are catchy ones that the older men in the community thought of such as the “blarney spreader,” which is a manure spreader, and also, a personal favorite of mine, a replica of the Lillis Tavern when it was first built. And, since we are a rural community, there is no end to John Deere tractors, which also, are conveniently already green for the event.
After the parade is over people don’t clear out. Many sit around on the beds of pickups and reminisce, while others walk around the block to see who they can find. All the children play in the park, which is conveniently placed next to the bar, so fathers can gather and have a few drinks while their child is swinging away.
Later in the day, after everyone has had their fill of standing around and talking, they make the short trek up the large hill to the Lillis gymnasium, which is currently on the Kansas Historical Society Register. There, they attend the community potluck. The large gym quickly becomes filled with people of every age. They gather, and eat some of the best home cooked food you will find.
Slowly people begin to filter out. Some go to attend church at nearby St. Joseph’s, others go home to rest, and yet others continue along the party trail. The last of the few stragglers are still around when darkness falls, but none of them really want to head home. It’s hard to leave a community like this when it is so easy to feel at home with the people. But, life goes on, they must go on to their jobs, and leave this sleepy little town on to its regular business. The green will slowly fade away, and the town will return to its normal Kansas landscape, until the next year comes around, giving little Lillis, Kansas its time to shine that Irish pride.