As you are driving the Texas Panhandle roads of either Highway 86 or Farm to Market 168 in Castro County, you will see a town emerge on a hill seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Then you see a large structure that is the church. Its cross can be seen miles away on a clear day.
Irish settlers founded Wynne, later named Nazareth, the oldest surviving German Catholic community in the Texas Panhandle in 1892. However, it was not until a decade later that Father Joseph Reisdorff, Nazareth’s founder came to this settlement to establish a Catholic church. Through advertising and letter campaigns, Germans arrived in this village based on his descriptions and promise of cheap land:
“Nazareth lies on a beautiful hill in the center of the community in prairie land – no trees other than what man has planted. The water is clean and abundant at a depth of 25-150 feet, healthful especially for kidney disease and tuberculosis. Land is still cheap from $4.00 to $8.00 an acre. As far as what grows around Nazareth – wheat, oats, barley, corn, sorghum, and cotton, including all sorts of fruits and vegetables. Boll-weevils do not thrive here. Snakes have already become scarce. I have not seen any in 18 months.”
Nazareth’s only drawback in those early years getting there was either by covered wagon or buggy. Reisdorff built up the community for four years before needing to leave in 1906 for health reasons. He prearranged for the Subiaco Abbey in Subiaco, Arkansas to send Order of Saint Benedict priests to pastor at the church.
Between the years of 1906 to 1939, ten priests from Subiaco served Nazareth. Each had their own distinctive personalities that shaped the early religious foundation and community in Nazareth.
Father Bonaventura Binzegger, born in Switzerland, was the pioneer in the Texas missions from Subiaco. A venerable and gentle older priest, he was disgruntled and in ill-health when sent to Nazareth in 1906. From correspondences he was characterized as strong, energetic, and often strict, that enabled him to provide the leadership the Nazareth church needed. Immediately, upon his arrival, he ministered to a family who had driven 100 miles in two buggies just to see him.
He was always complaining about the conditions, confreres, or others slackness and tolerated little from his parishioners. During German parish dances, so beloved by Germans, he spent hours praying in church for their morals till the early morning light, burning candles down to their ends. Mixed choirs he’d have none of it and abolished them, insisting on male choirs only.
No matter where he went he succeeded in making ends meet, but it is not recorded how he managed. In 1907, Binzegger increased the width of the church from 16 to 24 feet. Later that year, he organized the first of many societies that have marked parish life at Nazareth, like The Christian Mother’s Society. He also built the first small rectory until a larger rectory was built in 1921.
His controversial spirit while at Nazareth resulted from the fact he was working on the impossible – the start of a new monastery in Texas, especially at Nazareth. After receiving a promise of land at Nazareth for this monastery everyone got on board including Bishop Edward Dunne of Dallas. However, changes in parochial assignments in the Texas missions moved Binzegger farther away from building a permanent monastery. Regrettably, the project ended in bitterness for him admitting, “I will have nothing more to do with it.”
Father Conrad Herda was a willing spirit, who sacrificed everything for the call of the Lord. At Nazareth from 1918 to 1923, he is recognized for building a larger convent for the Benedictine Sisters from Fort Smith, Arkansas, and a larger rectory.
For health reasons, Father Justin Wewer, a German priest served the parish from 1925 to 1929. He is credited with building the one-room parochial school for first and second grades in 1928, as well as organizing the long-standing Knights of Columbus in the parish.
Father Thomas Buergler pastored at Nazareth during the Depression years of 1930 to 1933. He was able to reenergize Holy Family’s organizations with new life during these trying years.
The Dust Bowl era priest was Father Alphonse Bock from 1933 to 1939, who led the congregation through its worst years. Due to the financial disaster, the dust bowl caused he gave up his salary more than once to help the farmers keep their land. His addiction was a racket of ticks, tocks, whirrs, clangs, and cuckoos because he was an avid collector of clocks and spent hours repairing them throughout his life.
Life in Nazareth was interesting for these priests, especially when it came to the weather patterns. Imagine being in this part of Texas from 1900 to 1940 if you were a priest – experiencing all kinds of weather from protracted droughts, to rains, frequently with hailstorms dumping on the ground like baseballs or even being so cold in winter the water in pitchers froze solid.
Then there were days when sandstorms raged all day with dust covering everything back then no matter what time of year. Only rarely would thunderstorms threaten miles away. Thankfully, the prairies always appeared fresh and green after each rain, but often the moisture came too late to save some crops. These conditions were recounted in letters to Subiaco.
In an August 6, 1928, letter Father Justin remarked, “Thanks to God the dry and hot spell we had for seven weeks is past, seven weeks of hot and dry winds, I can tell you it was ‘hell’. Have plenty of rain now and prospects for row crop are fairly good.” Father Bock confirmed in his letters from October 1934 to April 1937 the protracted periods of no rain, “The drouth was merely interrupted about the end of August by a few showers. No rain during September and none so far in October.” He wrote in another letter, “We had a long siege of dust storms, but today it looks as if it might rain before very long.” Again he said, “The weather continues warm and dry and I wonder at times whether it will ever rain again.”
Father Buergler’s letter in April 1932 said:
“This morning we had the first rain of the year. What did not suffer from lack of moisture, suffered from sandstorms. We certainly had our share of the latter. We had our last and worst sandstorm last Saturday. The Sisters said that they did not experience anything like it since they are here. Although it was a clear day, the sun did not shine. The storm began about 7 a.m. and lasted until 9 p.m. We had the windows blocked and shades down, but the sand did get in and covered everything. Did you ever see an electric storm on the Plains? We had one last Saturday with the sandstorm. When the people told me we are having an electric storm I said, ‘Get out, there are no clouds, thunder, and lightning.’ They took me out to the windmill and asked me to shut it off. When I got my hand almost to the handle sparks began to fly. I got a shock like from a spark plug. The electric in the air took the tips from all the wheat and worked on all vegetation.”
During World War I hostilities raged on all levels, especially against German-Americans in the U.S. Violence and prejudice against Germans occurred throughout the country and Nazareth was no exception. Sadly, this narrow-mindedness was directed at the German-born priest, Father Conrad who preached and prayed in both German and English at Nazareth since he had arrived. He had only been Nazareth’s pastor for seven months when he recounted in a September 3, 1918, letter:
“Bad things are stirring in Nazareth again…. Somebody reported me to the police. Isn’t it mean that people would want to report their own priest and rejoice to see that he would be incarcerated however it did not come to that yet. What I said I can be responsible for – I have three brothers in war and my parents are living over there and I would like to be there and suffer with them. I only said this to two of my parish Catholic members…. And these two reported it to the Castro County Council of Defense. …. at first I intended to come alone by myself to you and leave the parish without a priest. They deserved being abandoned…. Only then there are many innocent and they don’t need to suffer. The ones who did it really deserve punishment…. .…such a situation really gets to you. I have always preached in German and English and prayed English prayers. Their hatred of everything German is too big. They want to do away with everything German. I am not afraid but it causes me great pain…. The people have no idea how to treat me….”
The hostilities toward Conrad worsened when the Castro County Council of Defense wrote to the Diocese of Amarillo saying, “We believe the speaking of the German language in any public place to be un-American…. As to the teaching of the German language in school, we feel, that any attempt to compel children to learn that language will result in a division not only of the school but the entire community.”
The Council’s most damning statement claimed Conrad was not fit to minister to the spiritual needs of American citizens, asserting, “We want to make it plain…. we want the leaders of every denomination to be 100% American.” From there it continued to worsen for Father Conrad when he became the most humiliated man in the region with the signing of Armistice on November 11, 1918. News traveled slowly to isolated communities back then and Nazareth farmers were working that day not knowing the war was over. A group of Dimmitt citizens came to Nazareth, found them hard at work, and assumed they were unpatriotic.
These self-appointed patriots went to the church and brought out Father Conrad who was forced to kneel down and publicly kiss the American flag. Conrad left Nazareth in 1923 with a heavy heart. Even though what he called ‘the badness’ never ceased for him, he had grown to love the parish and leaving was not easy for him.
The life of a monk did not mean the priests could not have a few luxuries, especially a car. However, the parish saw it differently in one instance. These priests needed transportation often over very rough roads to visit sick parishioners as far away as forty-three miles at Plainview. Father Bock recounted in an August 1938 letter that he brought his old Ford to Nazareth and made it clear to the people from the beginning the car did not belong to the parish, but to him. When the Ford was in need of repairs, not one of the parishioners offered to help him get a new one. With assistance from Fort Worth friends, he got a new car from a dealer in Hereford. He resentfully said, “After all the hard manual labor I did here for nothing to keep down expenses and have a favorable balance at the end of the year, I do not feel obliged to make a donation of this new car to this parish. The people could very well afford to buy the pastor a moderately priced new car if they wanted to do so.”
Some of the priests who served Nazareth were prone to accidents either of their own making or just plain accidents. In July 1926 Father Justin caused the unfortunate death of a dog on the way to see a parishioner. Justin wrote that he:
“Nearly ran into trouble yesterday when Mr. Doerr was dying. I was notifying one of his daughters who has no telephone, I was of course in a hurry and going to her place I happened to hit the dog of a man who is not over friendly disposed towards me, Harold McCormick, one of the bullies of this place. He threatened to kill me for this, will probably have to put him under at peace bond unless he comes around and retracts….”
Four years later in December 1930, Father Thomas almost burned down the rectory in a gas accident. He wrote that:
“I had an accident Christmas morning and almost lost the house. I had almost all of the sacraments for Christmas-about 400 communions the day before Christmas and I worked in the church from breakfast on. While I was in church my gasoline stove burned out. I filled it up to have it ready for Christmas…. I forgot to turn off the gas feed. Christmas morning at 7 a.m. I jumped out of bed took a dim flashlight and brought the stove into the office. When I struck the match all was in flames. I fought the flames with rugs and blankets, but they got the best of me so I carried the stove downstairs and outside. We had about 10 inches of snow on the ground so with clothes burning I cast myself in the snow for a few moments; then right back and put out the fire.”
Thankfully no one was stirring yet on that Christmas day or they would have thought Father Thomas had temporarily gone insane rolling – around in all that snow.
Day-to-day life for the priests in the Nazareth community was either hearing hundreds of confessions per month, celebrating the Mass, visiting the sick, and overlooking the day-to-day operations of the church and their farm. Often new priests were not treated like their predecessors. For instance, Father Buergler commented he was treated as a little schoolboy after he arrived with his orders being disregarded by the housekeeper and janitor. In reality, the priests could not please everybody in the parish. Some experiences of the priests taught them the lesson that a pastor is readily sacrificed to please a group of disgruntled parishioners. Cooking was made simple for them. People would bring them bread, milk, butter, meat, and vegetables. Most of the priests commented on the excellent taste of the water the Ogallala Aquifer provided them.
It was more than once that the priests remarked on how lonely Nazareth was for them, especially if they had no car. Seldom were there visitors from the outside world. Back then there were no special places to travel. As Father Bock said in one letter, “There is plenty of work in this parish, but life is nevertheless monotonous and rather lonesome.” Often those lonely times were filled with their friends visiting and going out and killing rabbits was their best way to pass their time.
Towards the end of Father Bock’s service, Subiaco began to talk of closing down the church. Bock commented in an August 1935 letter, “The various reasons for giving up this parish have been enumerated…. What the future of agriculture on the Plains will be, nobody can predict…. The past two years or so have been the worst within the memory of the old-timers and better years may reasonably be expected. My reaction to the idea of giving up Nazareth is one of deep regret.”
While I was only able to highlight a few of the ten Benedict priests who served Nazareth, from their letters a rich history is reflected of the community from harvesting, to weather patterns, to even prejudice that ran high right before the end of WW I. The parish got along, as parishes will with pleasant and unpleasant events.
As Father Buergler once stated, “If the rain comes-the people will smile again.” Times were trying for all during these early years. No matter the number of times these priests wrote back to Subiaco relating their perils with parishioners and the occasional strife they had to deal with, it seemed peace always won out. As the Subiaco Bishop was once advised, “keep a man with a weak heart off the plains.” None of these priests had a weak heart. They possessed only a strong fortitude to do what was right.
Monks from Subiaco continued as pastors until 1939 when Father Bock was replaced by a diocesan priest. Father Thomas stated the perfect sentiment generally reflected by all these priests, “I can’t forget Nazareth.” Indeed, due to these monks, Nazareth has not been forgotten after all these years.
Photographs courtesy of Subiaco Abbey, Arkansas and restored by Christena Stephens.