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Landmark of the Plains to be restored
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Inside what remains of the old steeple, Stephen Clayton works on the bell platform. The original ladder that leads to the steeple is still in place. - photo by KAREN LA PIERRE

BARTON COUNTY — Long-viewed as the ‘Landmark of the Plains,’ Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church north of Ellinwood was seriously damaged in May 2007 when the steeple collapsed during a tornado. Standing firm for over a 100 years, the church was a center of activity during most of the twentieth century, where those seeking solace in times of trouble and those celebrating the good times could both find a place of rest.

The church is being restored to its former grandeur. The steeple is in the process of being repaired, and the original three bells and the copper cross will be reinstalled.

The parish is the oldest in the Dodge City Diocese and was started in 1875, according to Joe Hickel, board member of the Sts. Peter and Paul Heritage Association. The present church was built in 1892 and is also the oldest in western Kansas. It was declared a Catholic Shrine in 1986.

"We signed a contract to erect the steeple as it was before the tornado so Sts. Peter and Paul could be the "Landmark of the Plains" again," said Hickel. "We have enough funds to start." The board has raised enough fund for Phase I. Funds for Phase II, which involves the installation of the bricks, have not been raised.

Stephen Clayton, Trinity Restoration, will be in charge of the project.

Clayton anticipated that it will take about three months to complete the restoration. Rebuilding a steeple of the quality of the 1800s is not an easy task, and a steel skeleton structure will be built. Brick will be installed to match the rest of the 24 inch thick brick walls, and a new platform will be built for the bells as the old platform was damaged. The cross is being refurbished and will be placed back at the top of the steeple.

The bells will be placed back on the original 6 inch by 12 foot solid oak beams. The walls of the steeple will be 24 inches thick to match the original.

"It will be just as it was, only this time it will be structurally stronger," said Clayton. The original skeleton structure was built of wood.

Dan Mawhirter of Isern Plumbing Electric Heat and Air Inc. has taken on the responsibility of refurbishing the copper cross that was salvaged from the broken steeple. It is made of solid copper, and was painted white.

Mawhirter plans on donating his time to repair the cross. "I got a lot of black marks to make up for," he said laughing. He anticipates it will take three to four full days of work.

The solid copper sheets are hard to come by, Mawhirter said, and they will have to ordered out of Wichita or maybe even further.

"Copper is expensive to buy," he said. The interior of the cross has a medal frame will have to be redone.

He is very appreciative of the craftmanship in the original cross. "It was all hand-soldered and took a huge amount of time," to build originally, Mawhirter said. "When that cross was built, they knew what they were doing."

Different tradesmen will be performing different stages of the work.

Members of the Heritage Association Board are Leona Birzer, Joe Hickel, Leona Klein, Ryan Robl, Norman Johanning and Don Schloctermeier.

Memorial Day weekend, an open house will be held. On May 28-29, the church will be open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and on May 30, it will be open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. On Monday, May 30, there will be a service at the cemetery at 8 a.m. followed by Mass at 8:45 a.m.

Donations can be made to Sts. Peter and Paul Restoration Fund, Sunflower Bank, Box 546, Ellinwood.