PAPLIN, Neb. — It’s hard to imagine a place that’s seen such an unbelievable miracle, and such crushing heartache, as this village.

Surrounded by fields of corn and beans sits a lonely Polish Catholic church that is the last remaining vestige of Paplin, a town long ago abandoned when the railroad passed it by.

But the old church, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, hangs on, and holds an amazing story.

According to local legend, the church was blown off its foundation by a tornado in 1888. Then, before repairs could be made, a strong wind blew the 50-by-100-foot church back in place.

One of the caretakers of the church, Renee Jonak, didn’t blink an eye when asked if the legend was true. She has lived her entire life just down the road from the church, and while she wasn’t around in 1888, she has no doubts.

“It says so in the book,” she said, handing me a copy of the church’s centennial book, published in 1983.

Being a skeptical reporter, I asked the question more than once, in slightly different ways, during an hourlong visit to the double-steeple, wooden church. I scanned the foundation, which appeared to show some repairs to the wooden siding.

But as I paced off the dimensions of the building — you know, to gauge its size and come back with a “no way something that big could be blown around like that” query — Jonak leaned over and asked a friend with me if I was a “Thomas,” as in a “doubting Thomas.”

Ouch.

I’m sure I’m not the first person, and won’t be the last, to question the miracle.

The centennial book says the church was blown “a foot and a half” off its foundation before “a wind blew from the opposite direction and settled the church back on its original foundation.”

“This was considered a miracle by many,” the book concluded.

A local Polish historian, whose grandparents are buried at the Paplin cemetery, said that people should make up their own minds.

“Things like that do happen,” said Phyllis Piechota, one of the founders of the Polish Heritage Center in nearby Ashton. “And they swear by it (in Paplin).”

“If they aren’t telling the truth, it’s on them,” Piechota said.

The local priest, the Rev. Richard Piontkowski, who ministers five parishes from his base in Loup City, said he heard elders talking about the story when attending a wedding in the area as a kid. He also assumes it’s true, given the strong local belief.

But Piontkowski said he’s heard similar miracle “blown back onto the foundation” stories at other churches, including when he was stationed in Rome. Those churches, however, were built of stone, he said. It’s easier to believe that a wooden church, like the one in Paplin, could be moved by the wind, the father said.

Bill Lock, who now runs Badger’s Bookshop in Lincoln’s College View area, first told me about Paplin years ago. His take was also that the story could be true.

Paplin diphtheria memorial

The graves of the children of Paplin, Nebraska, who died in a diphtheria epidemic in 1892-93 are are unmarked. A granite gravestone was recently placed in the cemetery in memory of them.

What is undisputed about Paplin is that it was devastated by a diphtheria epidemic in 1892-93. About 100 children died, up to six in a family. The Paplin school had to be closed that year. The graves of the children are unmarked in a corner of the cemetery, which sits on a hill overlooking the old church. A granite gravestone was recently placed in the cemetery to memorialize the diphtheria victims.

Ted Kooser, the former U.S. poet laureate, was so moved by his visit to the cemetery that he wrote about it in his 2014 book, “The Wheeling Year: A Poet’s Field Book.”

“If you stand there under the creaking cedars you can see for more than a hundred years,” he wrote.

The future of the Paplin church — like so many country churches — is uncertain, though there’s been no lack of spunk in nearby residents.

In 1974, parishioners revolted when the diocese attempted to close the church. Jonak said that she and others continued to say the Rosary at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. They also changed the locks on the doors so that the bishop in Grand Island could not enter. “We would not give up,” she said.

Eventually, the bishop relented and a new priest was assigned. But the last regular Masses ended more than a decade ago. While burials continue at the cemetery, there’s only one Mass a year at the church, around the Feast of Mount Carmel, July 16. There’s also a “steeple to steeple” run/walk from the Paplin church to St. Francis Catholic Church in Ashton during the first weekend in July.

The old church needs paint and a new roof, and, because it has no running water or air conditioning, presents challenges for weddings and funerals.

Meanwhile, Jonak and her relatives keep the lawn mowed and keep the faith. She said she’s winning the battle to keep critters out.

“I feed the mice,” Jonak said. “I give them their last supper.”

Former country school teacher will talk at Beatrice event

When one-room school lovers from across the country gather next weekend at the Homestead National Monument in Beatrice, they will get a firsthand lesson in how reading, writing and arithmetic were taught at a country school just down the road.

Darlene Rehm, now 92 and living in Lincoln, was the last teacher at Freeman School, a brick school located on the monument grounds. She first rang a school bell in rural Gage County in 1941 and was there until the Freeman School closed in 1966.

She will be among the former teachers and students of one-room schools sharing stories during a kickoff event June 17 from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Homestead Monument.

There will be “story sharing” sessions at 1 p.m. followed by a presentation on the Children’s Blizzard of 1888, a legendary and swift storm that trapped kids inside the then-numerous one-room country schools. Gage County, for instance, once had more than 150 such schools.

The free event is a prelude to the Country School Association of America conference in Beatrice that runs June 18 to 20. It’s the first time the national event will be held in Nebraska, and is, in large part, a testament to the recent resurgence in interest in the old schoolhouses, including the state country schools convention held the past two years.

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An earlier version of this story had Ted Kooser's last name misspelled. 

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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