Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…
There’s a quiet serenity drifting across the Dodson Prairie tonight, a peaceful blessing rising in my heart the farther west I drive.
Dodson Prairie’s St. Boniface Catholic Church will celebrate its 100th anniversary on its patron’s day June 5, 2012 . Masses were said in this stately building regularly until the fateful letter from Bishop Delaney arrived in May 1997. Not enough people, it said. Better move your flock south to Strawn. There were 20 parishioners attending St. Boniface pretty steady back then.
I pull to the corner in front of the church, slide my car lightly through its unlocked front gate. They’re having Wednesday night rosary in ten minutes. I invited myself.
Friends greet friends and talk outside – about who was in the hospital, about visiting grandkids, about last week’s tragic death of a man they all know, about yesterday’s rain…thank God for that, and about a fall off a pickup truck running board that resulted in this new blasted walking cane. There are two canes in attendance this night, joined by one rolling walker. The median age is high 70s, middle 80s. They are casual in jeans and sweaters, work shirts. They close the door to the night wind outside, once all are inside.
This church used to be filled from front to back. Tonight these friends sit together in the back, sit in the last three rows of hard wooden pews with room left over. There are twelve people, if I counted correctly. This sanctuary has plank wooden floors, soaring seasoned stained glass windows, potted poinsettias, a Christmas tree and life. Two majestic white candles burn in the far distance, atop the front altar. Behind that a red vigil candle flickers its soft light toward these parishioners in invitation.
St. Boniface’s Church has always been a mission church. They still have the occasional funeral, wedding, or baptism out here. Weddings can fill this old building up, I’m told. The diocese pays the insurance bill, but this community of friends pays for everything else, pays with the labor of their own hands in many cases.
The petition part of tonight’s service is unlike any I’ve ever heard. I like the way these people do their petitions better. Petitions are prayers to God asking for the healing, care or strengthening of people, the Church, or most anything suitable that comes to mind. Most Catholic churches recite a formal litany of lines as they fire these prayers off toward heaven.
This night, these older people are in quiet conversation with their Lord and with each other. “We need to pray for so and so, whose husband died last week,” they use only her first name since they know who’s being prayed for personally. They all nod. They all pray. Another says softly to the others, “She’ll be okay. She’s a strong woman.” One lady prays that someone she knows can find work, talks about the hardship this family faces each dinner time. I have a picture in my mind of a benevolent grandfather God rocking beside his fireplace, listening, attentive, pen in hand writing these folks’ prayers in His little book. My imagination doesn’t comply with official omniscient dogma sometimes.
But that’s what I see. Their rosary begins:
Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee…
Weathered hands worn wrinkled and tender through 70 and 80 and 95 years of life hold sparkling rosary beads before them, the first bead pinched between two fingers as their circle prayer begins.
Blessed are thou among women…
These folks aren’t praying TO Mary, as is often wrongly believed. It’s like when I need a big favor, I call someone sitting close to the Decision Maker, someone who can get his attention – in this case His mom. The youngest in the room is my age. This community of faith hopes some young people will move out on the Prairie, one day soon.
The Gospel reading tonight is about the man who hates his brother, a wasted reminder out here. The family names seated around me read like a century-old roll call to the history of these parts: Teichman, Holub, Bearden, Boyd, Nowak and others.
The service ends. There are chocolate chip cookies by the back door. I talk to a few, cut up with a couple more, get told about the day in 1943 when the school kids loaded up their stuff and tromped from the old school up the hill to the new school. These folks are those 1940s kids.
“How long are y’all going to keep this going?” I ask, then wish I hadn’t.
“As long as we’re able,” one kindly older woman replies. “We’re going to continue even if there are only two or three of us.”
Where two or three are gathered in His name…
As I leave through the gate I look back at the small covey of cars parked around this still-so-holy church. I take one last photograph, knowing that what I saw tonight will too soon pass from this earth. The song remains. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace…