This account of the early days of St. Francis Xavier appeared in the Sept. 27, 2011 Great Bend Tribune:
On March 14, 1886, a group of Stafford County Catholics met and agreed to contribute toward the support of a 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.
Another event the parish is famous for, the Seward Picnic, 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 parish has special meaning for Father 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.”
Father Guesnier began his ministry in Seward, traveled the world, and returned home for his retirement years.
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.
SEWARD — The Most Rev. John Balthasar Brungardt, bishop of the diocese of Dodge City, will officiate the Mass on Memorial Day, May 25, at St. Xavier Catholic Church in Seward. Bishop Brungardt will also install a first-class relic of Blessed Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio.
The parish celebrated its 125th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of the priesthood of Father Rene Guesnier in 2011. More than 200 people came from as far away as Massachusetts and Florida for that celebration.
The ornate church building is now 100 years old, and Guesnier and members hope to see another large turnout for the May 25 observance.
The services and the covered-dish dinner are for everyone.
There will be a rosary at 9 a.m. at the St. Francis Xavier Cemetery. At 10:15 a.m. there will be a blessing of the poustina – a place to pray and fast alone in the presence of God – and a blessing of the Shrine of the Mexican Martyrs of the 20th Century.
Mass at the church will follow, and the installation of the relic.
The event will continue with a covered dish luncheon.
In the 2010 census, the population of the Stafford County community was 64. The church is an important landmark in a town where the only remaining businesses are a grain elevator and Mom’s Bar and Grill.
Lifelong parish member Richard Devine said St. Francis Xavier is a small but committed parish.
“We’ve stay very traditional,” he said. Father Guesnier offers English and Latin Mass each Sunday.
“To me, it’s still the most beautiful church in the country,” Devine said.
The members of the parish stand strong in their beliefs. A few years ago, Father Guesnier brought the Shrine of the Mexican Martyrs of the 20th Century to the church after reading about Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio, a 14-year-old boy who died rather than renounce Jesus and his faith.
The shrine notes that between 1915 and 1937, Mexico underwent severe persecution by the secularist, anti-Catholic, anticlerical government in power. Priests and lay people were persecuted and martyred. The shrine names several of those martyrs, giving additional information about Jose Luis Sanchez.
Sanchez was born on March 28, 1913, in Sahuayo, Michoacan. He had a strong devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. In the Mexican Cristero War he carried the banner and was the bugler for the Cristeros. He was captured and his captors flayed the skin from the soles of his feet, and forced him to walk to a cemetery. On the way, they told him they would spare his life if he would but shout, “Death to Christ the king.”
Sanchez would only shout, “I will never give in! Viva Cristo Rey! Viva la Virgen Guadalupe!” These were his last words as he was martyred on Feb. 10, 1928. He was beatified on Nov. 15, 2005, by Pope Benedict XVI.