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St. Anthony Church marks 125 years of serving immigrant families

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, June 10, 2012, at 6:53 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, June 11, 2012, at 6:44 a.m.

Huyen Le, 38, brought three of her four children to Mass at St. Anthony Catholic Church last week.

Le, who was raised Buddhist, emigrated from Vietnam in 1986 and married into a Vietnamese Catholic family almost a decade later. Since then, she has attended her husband’s parish, St. Anthony, every Sunday, with her children in tow. In the summer, they go every day.

A few rows in front of the Le family were Suzanne Walcher, her daughter, Katy, and her 9 year-old twin grandsons, Maxwell and Oliver.

The Walchers and the Les and about 30 other people participated in the noon Mass celebrated by the Rev. Hung Quoc Pham, St. Anthony’s Vietnamese pastor. They formed a crowd very different from the one that attended the first masses at Wichita’s oldest Catholic church, at 258 N. Ohio.

When St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church was built in 1887, it was meant to be a sanctuary where German immigrants could attend mass in their native tongue. Now, it is home to about 700 families with European, Vietnamese and Hispanic roots.

“It’s kind of like God’s mission was for the German immigrants, and we’re still an immigrant parish, 125 years later,” said parishioner Camilla Hartman, who helped plan the parish’s anniversary celebration on Sunday. “He’s not done with us, obviously.”

The past

The first Catholics came to the Wichita area from Germany and Ireland, drawn by the free-land promise of the Homestead Act in 1862.

In the beginning, Masses were held in people’s homes. The Meagher family, who emigrated from Ireland in the late 1860s, is said to have hosted many of the initial Masses at their house.

The problem was that the German Catholics didn’t speak English, so they asked the Kansas diocese for a church of their own, where Mass would be held in German. The bishop approved the purchase of a piece of land from “Buffalo Bill” Mathewson’s cornfield at what is now the corner of Second and Ohio. The church was officially named St. Boniface; Wichitans called it the “German Church.”

A couple of years later, the German-speaking Franciscan order took over the ministry of St. Boniface. They changed its name to St. Anthony of Padua and stayed for almost a century.

Masses continued to be held in German until World War I, when the United States entered the war against Germany.

“There was an incredible amount of anti-German feeling,” Hartman said, whose ancestors were German.

“My dad, he was from a little German town called Germantown in northeast Kansas, and they changed the name of that town during WWI to Mercier, the name of a priest. Just because everybody wanted to stay under the radar and not be German.”

The German inscriptions were taken off the arches of St. Anthony Church and the Masses were held in English.

Meanwhile, Mexicans started moving to the area in the 1910s and 1920s. They were the first non-Western European Catholics to settle in Wichita, coming with and working for the railroads.

“Railroads and Catholics are intertwined in the Kansas story,” said Jay Price, associate professor and chair of the Public History Program at Wichita State University.

The Mexicans were at first marginalized by the Catholic community in Kansas, Price said, so they formed their own smaller parishes. Later, the prominence of Hispanic Catholics and their saints, such as the Virgin of Guadalupe, grew, and they started taking part in parishes that were traditionally German or Irish Catholic.

St. Anthony parish now includes several Hispanic families. But its biggest influence in the past decades came from another continent.

The Vietnamese

In April 1975, South Vietnam fell to the communists of North Vietnam. Thousands of South Vietnamese fled; many of them came to the U.S.

Among them was Pham. He had begun his studies at a theological seminary in Vietnam, he said, but the new communist government restricted all religious activities, including his ordination.

In 1983, he said he tried to escape from the country, but was caught and put in prison for six months. He got out and tried again. This time, he succeeded.

He went to Malaysia, then to the Philippines, and then to Wichita, where his brother was living at the time. He began his studies with the diocese of Wichita, and four years after his arrival he became a priest.

He was appointed assistant pastor at St. Patrick Church, which at the time included many of the Vietnamese Catholics in Wichita. But like the Germans a century before, the Vietnamese wanted a place of their own.

In 1991, the bishop offered them the unoccupied St. Anthony School building, across the street from the church, which became the Vietnamese Activity Center. Many community members started attending Mass at St. Anthony and in 1995 they got a new pastor, Father Pham.

Now, more than 400 of the 700 families in St. Anthony parish are Vietnamese. The church offers Masses in English and Vietnamese, celebrated by Pham, and in Latin by the Rev. Jared Lies.

A peculiar thing about the Latin Masses is that they are largely attended by young families of various ethnic groups.

“We thought that the old people would go back to the Latin Mass,” said Bob Walterscheid, a church member. “They didn’t, and it’s been the young people, the young families, attending the Latin Mass, not only here but across the country. We have an average of 120 coming every Sunday, and I would say 20 to 30 are kids under 12.”

Sunday’s 125th anniversary service

The gymnasium across the street from St. Anthony was packed Sunday as several hundred people attended the Thanksgiving Mass on the 125th anniversary of the parish. The service was done in English and Vietnamese.

Those attending included Wichita Diocese Bishop Michael O. Jackels, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and City Council member Lavonta Williams, whose district includes St. Anthony parish.

In delivering the homily, Jackels told the congregation that the anniversary service was indeed a special occasion.

“As I was brushing my teeth and shaving my face, the radio in their news broadcast announced the 125th anniversary of St. Anthony parish and made mention of our anniversary service this morning,” Jackels said. “It is newsworthy. It is significant knowing our past”

As families of all ethnic backgrounds sat on folding chairs, using church bulletins to fan themselves in the heat, the bishop said the decision to host the service in the gymnasium rather than the historic church was so more people could join the celebration.

“It is a beautiful church. But this anniversary celebrates our 125 years of our parish church,” he said. “It is a parish community which continues to exist. This is what we are celebrating: 125 years of believers gathering together as a parish family. We gather to worship God in holy Mass, to learn about the ways of Jesus and teach and serve. It is 125 years of a church family at St. Anthony.”

Toward the end of the service, when two children presented the bishop with flowers, he graciously accepted and told them:

“Stay faithful to the Lord Jesus. Stay faithful to the Lord Jesus so that 125 years from today, you can bring up flowers again” as he and the congregation chuckled.

The ‘magic bulletin’

One way the parishioners at St. Anthony communicate with one another is the church bulletin. It also has become a very efficient medium, especially when it comes to fundraising.

“We have a magic bulletin,” Walterscheid said. “In the past, every time something came up where we needed additional money, it was put in the bulletin.

“We needed a boiler at the school – $19,000. Within three weeks we raised it.

The stained glass windows upstairs – $88,000. We put it in the bulletin and within a few weeks we had $88,000.”

The biggest sum parishioners have collected so far was for St. Anthony’s restoration in 2005, which cost about $785,000. Checks came from 11 states, as far as New York and California, from around Kansas and, of course, Wichita.

The bulletin is also an outlet for messages coming from the Wichita diocese regarding current issues such as birth control and same-sex marriage. Compared with 125 years ago, the Catholic community is a lot more vocal on social issues – particularly those concerning abortion and family – and is more involved in politics, said Price, the WSU professor.

“The Catholics 125 years ago were much more, ‘Let’s keep to ourselves,’ ” Price added. “They are a much more active presence in the society today than they used to be.”

Hartman, the parish member, sees the Catholics’ past detachment as a result of the discrimination they faced in the U.S.

“I think one reason why Catholics were kind of insular was because they had to protect themselves,” she said. “But with the change in our society and in Vatican and the emphasis on social justice and civil rights, I think we are able to step out of those old boundaries, be more involved and not be afraid.”

Contributing: Beccy Tanner

Reach Simina Mistreanu at 316-269-6791 or smistreanu@wichitaeagle.com.

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