NEW RICHMOND, Wis. — No one knows how it got there, or where it came from, or just what happened to it over the decades.
But parishioners at SS Thomas & John Episcopal Church believe the gleaming chalice now ensconced in a handmade display case is the only surviving artifact of the Episcopal church leveled by Wisconsin’s deadliest tornado, a twister that killed 117 people in 1899.
A history of the New Richmond church written in 1986 by its vicar mentioned the discovery of the silver chalice in the wreckage of the building located near where a Methodist church is today. No one knows how many of the Episcopal church’s members were injured or killed in the tornado, though much of the community was leveled.
As best as anyone can recollect, the chalice was first noticed several decades ago but was kept in a cloth bag in a cupboard in the church’s sacristy, said Father Vern Barber, who became pastor Jan. 1. No one made the suspected link to the 1899 tornado until recently.
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“When the church was destroyed, a lot of the members were supposed to transfer to a church in Star Prairie, but we know many did not,” Barber said. “We’re not sure if someone kept the chalice or if the chalice was transferred to that church in Star Prairie.
“It remains a mystery, and we have not found a way to solve it.”
For years no one took it out to examine or polish it or learn anything about it. It wasn’t until recently that Kirby Symes, a church member and retired high school history teacher, decided to learn more about the object collecting dust in a crowded cabinet.
It is entirely possible the chalice in the display case, which church members asked Barber to bless and consecrate, is not the chalice that survived the lethal twister. But it could be. And more important, the good people of SS Thomas & John Episcopal Church believe it is.
It’s certainly old enough. Barber sent the chalice — a critical piece in a congregation’s Eucharist service — to a silversmith in New England who reported that it was very old and that it was actually made of pewter with silver plate. There were no marks or stamps to help date or identify the manufacturer. At first glance, the cup used to dispense wine during Communion didn’t look like it had been tossed around by a funnel cloud. It was dirty but it wasn’t nicked or dented.
Many survivors report, however, that it’s not unusual for delicate possessions to survive tornadoes unscathed since the swirling winds often inexplicably leave behind china cabinets filled with unbroken plates and saucers inside homes blown apart.
Ray Anderson, 74, a school bus driver who has been a member of the Episcopal church in New Richmond since he graduated from high school, said Episcopalians in New Richmond frequently met in homes in the decades after the deadly tornado. Anderson is old enough to know people, including his wife’s grandmother, who recounted their tales of the fateful day for decades.
“The only thing still standing on Main Street was the vault in the bank,” Anderson said.
New Richmond’s tornado is still in the U.S. top 10 killer twisters, though it moved down a slot to ninth after the Joplin, Mo., twister that killed more than 150 last year. What made the death toll worse was that Gollmar Brothers Circus had come to New Richmond on June 12, 1899, for two shows, drawing folks from around the countryside. People were milling around downtown or had gone home to make supper after the matinee when the tornado hit at 6:05 p.m., injuring 125 people and killing 117.
Symes checked the University of Wisconsin-River Falls archives to research the site of the original Episcopal church in New Richmond.
“These people had started meeting in homes and storefronts and then they purchased some property on 2nd and Green streets. They dragged an old schoolhouse and put it on this piece of property,“ said Symes, a lay minister at the church. ”Then the tornado hit.”
Now meeting in a 1906 church originally built by Swedish settlers as the First English Lutheran Church, New Richmond’s Episcopalians bought the building and moved in soon after World War II. It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places. Today’s small congregation of 15 to 20 members worships together on Sunday mornings.
The chalice believed to have survived the tornado turned out to be difficult to use for Communion. It’s oddly shaped with a very large bottom that makes it difficult to see the wine level when held up to people’s lips, said Barber. Church members decided it was best to display it in a small case with a sign noting its uncertain though suspected historic origins.
“I guess we were all glad it was found,” Anderson said. “We wondered where it had been all these years.”