HOWELLS, Neb. — You roll up at 8:09 a.m. on a spring Sunday, bleary-eyed, figuring you will be the first one here. Twenty-one minutes early for church! You have never been 21 minutes early for church — or for anything — in your life.
Except you aren’t the first one here, not even close. Pickup trucks and SUVs already line the block surrounding Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in this tiny eastern Nebraska town. People file into the 99-year-old church with the steeple you can see from miles away: older couples who have been coming here since they spoke German inside; young couples holding the scrubbed hands of small children; teenagers, their hair still wet from the shower, who have shown up mere hours after ending the night at the nearby high school’s post-prom.
“Good morning,” they all say to you, and each other, over and over. “Good morning.” “Good morning.”
It seems like a nice crowd for any church. It seems like a big crowd for a Catholic church in a town of about 550 people. And the number of people filing in is downright insane when you know this: Sts. Peter and Paul Parish will actually host only the second-largest Catholic service in this town on this particular Sunday. The biggest service, a Mass and First Communion, will begin in 90 minutes across town, when hundreds of other old folks, young couples and teens pour into St. John Nepomucene, which has existed in Howells for more than a century.
Howells, Nebraska, is in fact the last small town with two Catholic parishes in the entire Omaha Archdiocese. These two Catholic churches of Howells are a quirk of fate, an oddity of American immigration, a faded symbol of long-forgotten ethnic strife and also a newer symbol of this town’s persistence and cooperation.
“The parishioners (in Howells) take such ownership of their parishes,” says Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor of the Omaha Archdiocese. “That ownership is passed on, generation to generation, something to take pride in, both financially and spiritually. These parishes are still the center of all activity in the neighborhood. They are still the community’s anchors.”
The two churches of Howells are something else, too: endangered.
The archdiocese has begun a review of each small-town parish in northeast Nebraska and will most likely close or merge some of those 87 parishes to save money and cope with a priest shortage.
Howell’s two churches will be studied next year, and there’s a possibility — though no certainty — that one or the other will be closed in 2018 or 2019.
“I kind of see it coming, eventually,” says Francis Baumert, a lifelong parishioner and longtime choir member at Sts. Peter and Paul. “There’s going to be a few people here that won’t like it, whatever the outcome will be, if they do close one. But everybody understands it could be coming.”
It is hard to imagine a Sunday without the two churches of Howells on this Sunday, when Father Stan Schmit presides over Mass for roughly 175 people at Sts. Peter and Paul. The congregation passes the offering plate and takes communion. A toddler sitting in the back row kicks the church pew as his parents shoot him increasingly menacing looks. And from up in the balcony, Francis Baumert and the rest of the choir belt out hymns.
Baumert’s family has been coming here practically since the day this parish was founded in 1890 by a group of German immigrants who had homesteaded in the area. They recruited a pastor who spoke German and built a church, which was replaced by this towering church in 1918. For decades, they had very little to do with the other Catholic parish in town, St. John Nepomucene, which was founded in 1893 by mostly Bohemian immigrants who recruited their own pastor and spoke their own language.
For decades — at least three generations — the two Catholic churches of Howells were united mostly by their shared mistrust. Parishioners from one church rarely if ever set foot in the other church. The parishes established separate grade schools, separate social groups and even separate cemeteries.
“Someone once quipped that if someone from St. John’s married someone from Peter and Paul, it was a mixed marriage,” McNeil says. “They used to call it a mixed marriage!”
At 9:22 a.m., the service at Sts. Peter and Paul ends, and Father Stan jumps in his car, drives across town and immediately enters St. John Nepomucene. That parish is already packed. A woman sitting in the back pew is leading the congregation in saying Hail Marys.
St. John Nepomucene is actually the smaller of the two parishes — it has 297 parishioners, while Peter and Paul boasts 435 — but today it is so full that ushers are setting up extra folding chairs in the back of the church.
It is First Communion. As the church bells ring ahead of the 10 a.m. service, a group of nervous-looking grade schoolers wearing suits and white dresses line up single file outside the church, some holding their parents’ hands, readying themselves for the ceremony.
And here is one sign that times have changed for the two Catholic churches of Howells: Some of the family members and friends packing the pews and awaiting the ceremony at St. John are in fact members at Sts. Peter and Paul.
Francis Baumert, the lifelong member at Sts. Peter and Paul, now is a server at daily Mass twice a week at St. John’s.
And Paul Pekarek, a lifelong member at St. John’s, now sometimes serves as lector at Sts. Peter and Paul.
“There was no one thing that happened” to make the parishes work together, Pekarek says. “It was a long, long process of working together. And eventually, everybody got over it.”
The relationship started to thaw in the ’60s, when the Catholic grade schools merged. The farmers in town did the dirt work for the new school building themselves, even dynamiting the ground on a icy winter day so they could get to work.
In 1982 — after nearly a century of existence — the parishes for the first time began to share a priest. Each parish went down to one Sunday Mass, separated by 90 minutes so Father Stan can zoom from one to the other.
And, after some initial concern, the Catholic parishioners of Howells slowly realized ... this works just fine.
Church cooperation became possible in part because the old ethnic animosity has faded with every generation, and is now a memory instead of a reality. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the churches’ founders do not speak German or Czech, and do not much care about a century-old grudge revolving around where your ancestors lived in Europe.
And some of this happened because Howells isn’t big enough to hold a grudge. As the social groups shrunk, the two churches combined them. Today, the community’s Knights of Columbus chapter is thriving like it hasn’t in decades, Baumert says. As the number of Sunday Masses shrunk, it became normal for a member at one church to attend Mass at the other.
And as the size of the two church choirs shrunk, they began to combine forces. Today, when a member of either parish dies, the choirs attend the funeral, and sing together.
“People just had to get along,” Baumert said. “There wasn’t a whole lot they could do about it. So we did.”
It is impossible to know what, if anything, will happen to Sts. Peter and Paul and St. John Nepomucene in the years ahead. But, as you exit Howells after attending both church services — that is nearly three hours inside a church, God, in case you are keeping track — it is easy to see what could be lost, and gained, if the two churches of Howells became one.
“The word that keeps coming to me is ‘story.’ You can lose the old story, that sense of history, that bedrock commitment that these immigrants had to establish a parish, build a church in a foreign country where there were unfavorable conditions, where they had a sense of fear,” McNeil says. “But I think what is gained is new stories. New experiences. New traditions. ...
“In Howells, you can see that, if it were ever to happen, it could be a smooth transition into the future.”
The Two Catholic Churches of Howells are special, sacred, as deeply rooted inside this community as the corn that farmers outside town plant every spring.
But the Two Catholic Churches of Howells are something else in 2017. They are one.
During the Sts. Peter and Paul service, an usher leans over to you because he wants to make a point.
“You can’t say it's Germans or Czechs anymore,” he whispers. “We’re all Catholics.”
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Food critic Sarah Baker Hansen is from Omaha. Columnist Matthew Hansen grew up in Red Cloud. As a married couple they travel Nebraska to share with each other little-known people, unexpected stops and memorable foods. Come along and discover more of what the state has to offer in "The Better Half," an occasional series prepared with support from the Nebraska Community Foundation.