Photos by Tom Parker
St. Bridget Church a testament to the “fighting Irish”
The story goes (correctly or incorrectly doesn’t matter, so woven is it into the historical tableaux that it will stand forever as an illuminated portrayal of legitimate rebellion against hierarchy or tyranny, or, perhaps, merely proof of the fabled irascibility of the Irish) that late one night in 1863 or 1864 a group of disgruntled parishioners gathered on the steps of a frame church a few miles north of Axtell and, by torchlight and heavy labor, jacked the church onto ox-drawn skids and absconded with it. Their destination was a point one mile north where they felt the church should have been sited. Halfway there the oxen tired, the skids broke, and a second group of incensed parishioners, all of whom felt the church had no business being relocated, blocked the road and threatened violence.
It could have ended badly, and almost did until cooler heads prevailed. Farmer Patrick McGrath offered ten acres of land immediately west of where the hijacked church now rested, a contested chess piece tilted on its shattered traces neither here nor there but somewhere in between. By all means it was an excellent location, situated on an ascendant slope with expansive views to the east and south of rolling grassy hills sculpted by glaciers, a high point where the bell tower, should one ever be constructed, would be visible for miles. And so a compromise was reached: St. Bridget Catholic Church would bridge the opposing factions right where it was.
The church is still there, though certainly not in the same form. Through the following decades the structure went through several iterations, including the addition of a rectory, a parish school and a convent, though the community as a whole never amounted to much more than scattered farmsteads anchored to the church. For a while a mercantile operated nearby, and a post office and a gas station, but after a few years the towns of Axtell and Summerfield usurped the businesses. Then the rectory burned down followed by the convent, which was rebuilt with a little chapel attached.
Terry Stallbaumer, de facto caretaker of St. Bridget by dint of proximity—he and his wife, Norma, live next door—remembers the chapel as where what few parishioners remained received Mass when it was too cold to heat the church proper. Heating the church was a two-day process, for besides the fact that the walls were uninsulated there was the matter of the ceiling.
And what a ceiling it is. Towering unpillared in a Late Gothic Revival style, its pointed arch vaults and half-vaults present a geometric puzzle that seems to capture and enhance light and shadow so that both constrict and expand in the harlequin radiance streaming through the eight tall stained glass windows. To paraphrase Heraclitus, it is never the same ceiling twice. Pastel green walls (very Irish) contrast with pale gray adornments and arches, leading the eye heavenward from the entrance down the length of the nave to the vaulted altar with its elaborate spires and the holy trinity of Irish saints, St. Bridget at the uppermost center flanked by St. Columba and St. Patrick. The effect is mesmerizing.
It’s also a rarity. Only four other similar designs are known to exist in Kansas, and none as well preserved.
Preserving, or at least maintaining, a structure of antiquity is never an easy thing unless the benefactor is graced with limitless funds. In St. Bridget’s case that’s far from reality. That it still stands at all, however, is testament to the determination and ire of what’s been called “The Fighting Irish of St. Bridget’s,” who, as events portrayed, were willing to accept certain setbacks and eventualities but not all, and one in particular.
The current church was completed in 1908—minus a bell tower, for those funds never materialized—under the direction of architect George Stauduhar, who also designed St. Joseph Catholic Church in Topeka, among others. It was to be the grandest edition yet, with extras to be added as the parishioners’ economic means improved. As a church history explains, that day never came. As businesses vanished and buildings burned down, the settlement slowly depopulated. The number of parishioners waxed and waned but mostly waned until 1948 when the Archdiocese determined that school enrollment was too small to justify a convent. It was the first of several hits to follow, each more dire.
A year later the church was demoted to a mission parish. A shortage of priests and parishioners were responsible.
Congregants took it in stride. A basement was added, as was an organ. The exterior was repainted for the first time in over half a century. A new priest was assigned to the parish, Father Robert Pflumm. And then came word that the church would close. The final Mass was scheduled for Sept. 10, 1967.
Parishioners were told they could choose between three adjoining parishes in Baileyville, Summerfield or Axtell. Though parishioners were torn by the transition, they saw no way out of it, and begrudgingly abandoned St. Bridget. Until then, the succeeding setbacks had all been reasonable. What happened next was not, and the parishioners rebelled.
Less than two years following the church’s closing, word arrived that Archbishop Hunkeler intended to demolish St. Bridget. A group of past parishioners including a retired priest met at the church to decide how to combat this new threat. After much discussion it was agreed that they would form a historical society and present a petition to the Archdiocese.
The archbishop, however, refused to meet with representatives of the group. In desperation, Father Pickert was asked to intercede. For all Father Pickert's entreaties, Archbishop Hunkeler dug in his heels and refused to budge. His decision was final.
The first real break for the historical society came when the archbishop was forced to retire because of bad health. His replacement met with the group and granted permission for the church to be placed under the protectorate of the historical society. Marriages and funerals were still sanctioned as were two annual Masses. St. Bridget’s was saved from the wrecking ball.
Fifty years later, on a sultry Sunday afternoon, Kristin Throckmorton carried her young daughter, Delaney, up the stairs to the balcony. After setting down her daughter, she climbed on a chair and grasped with both hands a rope dangling from a tiny trapdoor high above on the ceiling. A few good tugs and the bell rang out, sonorous and surprisingly rich. The faithful were called to Mass.
About 70 parishioners were in attendance as Father Albert Hauser performed the service. Fully half of them were middle-aged or younger, and their commingled voices rose to the vaulted roof to hold communion with the shadows. Small windows were thrown open to catch the breeze, bringing the natural sounds of the outdoors within: the song of a meadowlark, the drumming of a woodpecker.
Afterwards, people gathered in the basement for an annual potluck dinner.
Though a casual scrutiny of the structure reveals cracks and deterioration, it remains in fairly stable condition. Terry Stallbaumer credits it to the original construction more than renovation efforts by the historical society—over the decades of the numbers of society members dropped and contributions faded.
“It’s in good shape for not being heated,” he says.
A pair of outhouses to the south provide the only facilities. One of the few modern conveniences is electricity in the form of a string of lights down the center of the nave and by the altar. Other than that, the church has hardly changed since its inception.
About 75 active members form the core group, he says, many assisting each fall for an annual workday. Because he lives next door, a great deal of the work falls on his shoulders. He says he doesn’t mind but it’s clear he appreciates all the help he can get.
“People are good,” he says. “People help us. We make do.”
A potentially more difficult task is getting younger families involved in the historical society, says Leo Glynn. Glynn, with his wife, Doris, are board members. They feel it’s partly due to families being so busy with schooling, careers and daily life, and partly because the church has been inactive for so long that their ties aren’t fully formed. And then there’s the problem of the original parishioners who fought for St. Bridget. “They’re dying off,” Doris says.
No one is ready to concede defeat, however. The Glynns have faith that when the older generation passes their heirs will step into their shoes and carry forward the torch of St. Bridget. That sort of faith might fly in the face of common sense, but it’s what’s kept St. Bridget intact, right where it is.
Tours of the church can be arranged by contacting Terry and Norma Stallbaumer at 785-736-2910.