SEWARD — With a crowd that overflowed the sanctuary, St. Francis Xavier Church in Seward celebrated its 125th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of the priesthood of Father Rene Guesnier on Sunday.
Located on a dirt road next to a corn field, the ornate and historic St. Francis Xavier Church that exists today was dedicated on Tuesday, March 14, 1916, providing hope and comfort for the early settlers of the area.
Bishop John Brungardt of the Dodge City diocese spoke of the extraordinary faith passed on through generations that have kept the parish going.
"Seward has indeed been fertile soil," said Brungardt. "The religious vocations from the parish, including three Benedictine monks are testament to that."
The parish has special meaning for Guesnier who is also a Benedictine monk. "I was born in this parish, baptized, and my parents were buried in the cemetery," he said. "We love our little church."
Guesnier began his ministry in Seward, traveled the world wide, and returned home for his retirement years. "I can still serve," he said.
Guesnier offers English and Latin Mass each Sunday and Monday. Parishioners travel many miles for the Latin Mass.
He made his decision to become a priest at age 14 when something inside told him to become a priest.
The early days
On March 14, 1886, a group of Stafford County Catholics met and agreed to contribute toward the support of priest, and so the parish was organized. The early days of the church in Seward required much dedication for service.
A lumber wagon provided transportation from Ellinwood or Great Bend for Father Leon Epp, requiring two days for the round trip, according to information provided in "St. Francis Xavier Parish," by Timothy Wenzl. Epp was the first priest to provide Mass.
The parish built a wood church that was in operation from 1889 until 1916 until the brick church, which was larger, was constructed.
In addition, at one time, the parish operated school, beginning in 1926 until 1965. The Dominican Sisters taught at the school. When a new kitchen was built in the 1950s, hot lunches were served not only to Catholic students, but also to public school children.
A convent was built across the street from the church for the sisters. Unfortunately, frogs and snakes were common in the convent basement, In Sept., 1945, the pastor and three boys caught 200 frogs in the sisters’ basement, where the water level was dangerously high. The home was recently purchased from a private owner and is being renovated for future use.
A shortage of funds and a shortage of sisters to teach in the school forced the closure. At one time, students were bussed over from St. John and Stafford.
Another event the parish is also famous for the "Seward Picnic", which started in 1911 as an ice cream social and continued until 1954 and drew thousands. A dance was held along with games and concessions and dinner.
The picnic was a fundraiser for many of the parish events in its early days.
Father Guesnier continues to care for the small church. The church underwent restoration in 1986 and 2008. In the past few years, a new altar handcrafted in Europe and a new prayer rail have been added.
"I will not let this parish die," said Guesnier.