High on a hill overlooking fields of barley, wheat, hay and grazing cattle sits the little country church. It can be seen from miles around if you know where to look, and as you drive closer to look upon its tall steeple and red roof you might feel as if you’d stepped back in time.
St. Henry’s, founded by Fr. Albert Lacombe and area families in 1907, received a new coat of paint and a little more life on the fourth weekend of August when men from the Diocese of Calgary volunteered for the job.
“I knew it needed to be painted,” said Fr. Myles Gaffney, parish priest of St. Michael’s Parish in nearby Pincher Creek, “so I approached the Bishop who said ‘lets nudge the men’s ministries to see if they can get volunteers.’”
In stepped Sean Lynn of the God Squad men’s ministry. He contacted professional painter Dan Lebsack, and off to the hamlet of Twin Butte they went to evaluate the work ahead.
When a weekend was chosen, the two made known that volunteers were needed, and a few responses rolled in. Armed with a paint sprayer, scissor lift donated by a nearby Hutterite colony, telehandler donated by a Calgary carpenter, scrapers and brushes, and the God Squad barbecue and food for Lynn to expertly prepare, the team set to work.
Bishop McGrattan arrived on the scene on Saturday to see everyone hard at work, “I think it’s wonderful,” he said of the entire initiative. “The men are inspired to work together.”
Bishop McGrattan was welcomed by the volunteers and members of the Historical Society of St. Henry’s who have assumed the role of caretakers of the church and cemetery since the parish closed in 2001. The Historical Society is made up of former parishioners, people whose family are buried in the cemetery and those interested in preserving the site, according to the society secretary and treasurer Lois Johnston.
The group, who’ve been hard at work to keep St. Henry’s in good repair with much of their own time and resources – with the help of visitor’s donations – were happy to accept the help that came at the diocesan request.
A few hundred dollars is donated annually by visitors to the site, many who come just to see the classic country church and surrounding views, and many to visit the cemetery and to pray and enjoy the grotto and Stations of the Cross built by Bob and Nonee Bonertz, just one of the families who’ve lived there for over one hundred years.
Ken Wittkopf, whose wife Louise (nee Bonertz) grew up as a parishioner said, “We’ve talked about it for a few years, and we’re glad it’s happening because we don’t want to lose it.”
The value of this church to its parishioners was evident, as several who were not part of the painting crew stopped to see how it was coming along. As the painting went on, memories and stories were shared.
“I was baptized here, had my first communion and confirmation here,” said Louise Wittkopf.
Noreen Fischbuch told stories of having lived right beside St. Henry’s in the rectory, which was unused by the clergy at the time.
“I had eight children in that house,” she said referring to the house mere meters from the back of the church, “and one day, we were actually a little late for church, and Fr. Kramer looked up as we came in and tapped his watch.”
Lois Johnston, whose grandfather Fred Klunker was one of the carpenters who built St. Henry’s emphasised the value of the church to the community of families who descended from those who built the church. Quite a few of them still farm the surrounding land.
“My parents were married in this church, my family attended this church and my Mom was the organ player for years,” she said, adding that she grew up on the farm beneath the hill on which St. Henry’s stands.
The general feeling from the society and volunteers was one of hope for the legacy and the future of St. Henry’s.
“The big churches came from these little churches,” said Historical Society chairman Ron Schmidt, aptly speaking of the history of Catholicism in our country – it began with missionaries and settlers, from people building small country churches whose descendants fill the much-larger churches we see today.
Upstairs in the choir loft, children were encouraged to ring the bell during the Bishop’s visit, and the sound was enjoyed by everyone below. Each person savouring their memories and nostalgia for the living and loving that went on at St. Henry’s for over a hundred years.
Written by Jessica Cyr for Faithfully
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers