Since Einer Jensen didn’t recognize me with grey hair last Sunday, I’ll introduce myself: Joan Mitchell, a Sister of St. Joseph. In the litany we sang and prayed we have placed ourselves in the company of generations of our families who have gathered in this parish community before us, our local communion of saints. The litany took 10 minutes to pray the names; it took 100 years of living and worshiping as a Christian community to get to this moment. Among those names are infants, the Schmidt babies, Ron Essler, a soldier killed in Vietnam, and people who lived among us into their nineties. We have celebrated life, love, and death together. When Father Jeff baptized my brother Warren’s grandchild here, Madeline was the sixth generation to come to this church or Padua, my uncle Jim Mitchell one of the first to be baptized here.
If we had picked scripture readings for our centennial, we couldn’t do better than those the Church reads today. The gospel parable describes Jesus as a farmer who sows the Word of God. This parable promises that in good soil the seed will yield 30, 60, and 100-fold. The promise looks beyond Jesus’ ministry and its end in his death and resurrection. The promise of 30, 60, and 100-fold reaches across the centuries. It is the promise of the gospel making progress in our world and transforming us as we hear the word Jesus taught and live it.
Farmers know about seeds and soil. Seeds only multiply if we plant them. Yearly we take the risk, sow seeds in the earth, and hope for a bumper crop. Actually seeds don’t fall into the earth and die, they germinate. The life inside them swells with warmth and moisture, outgrows their hulls, and sprouts into new plants. A wonderful image of Jesus, who like the seed germinates in the earth, swells with new life, and yields in his new life the hundredfold—the communities of Christians planted here, throughout the world, across the centuries.
Christian life is about planting the Word of God in our lives. Each generation hands on the Word of God to the next by living it. In a small parish like ours we remember people who by living the Word handed on the Jesus’ message to uss. I remember Peter Pletschette faithfully sitting in the pew in front of us every Sunday, third pew from the front, right hand side. He signed the original articles of incorporation for the parish as a trustee. At age three and four I found his totally bald head about the most interesting thing in church.
I remember Mr. Rausch whose legs were stiff and bowed but who nonetheless slowly made the double genuflection we used to do for adoration at the end of Holy Thursday liturgy. That gesture was a seed of living faith for me. Another seed got planted in sixth grade. We kids got to putty the new windows on the north side of Church. Puttying was a new level of belonging and ownership. Many men helped build the parish house and then the new Church. Some of you here may remember assembling the beams overhead. When we kids puttied the windows, it was for me a kind of sacrament of belonging. Confirmation is the Church’s sacrament, puttying was mine.
I remember the Essler’s standing at the altar here in the new church on their 50th wedding anniversary. Father Tony asked family to touch them on the shoulders to bless them. It’s a big family. Soon a whole web of maybe 50 people surrounded them, a beautiful testimony to all marriage can be. We celebrate the beginnings of marriages—what seeds of faith fall into good ground in celebrating a family that has thrived.
Even though we are a small, rural parish, the great movements in the universal Church have touched and stretched us. I am the only person I know, that is not from this parish, who grew up reading the Catholic Worker, learning about conscientious objection from Ammon Hennessey, who was often writing from jail. Of course, Dorothy Day, who started hospitality houses for street people in the Bowery in New York, came to speak. Probably the Church will one day declare her a saint.
We lived the liturgical movement in this parish. Every religion class began, “What is the liturgy?” Answer: The public worship of the Church, the public work and worship of the Church, centered in Eucharist, the sacraments, Holy Week was a workout for us all. Our worship has nurtured talented voices and church musicians who have gone on to help other communities pray.
My vocation started in release time religion class. Father Fehrenbacher wanted us to come to daily Mass for Lent. The Eucharist is the Church’s greatest prayer, he said, better than giving up candy. He asked us one by one if we would come to Mass. Jim Halvorson and Jack Marthaler said yes; they were serving. I said no. I had responsibilities at home, so Mother could leave early to teach country school.
The next morning the beds were made and I was done with dishes, staring at greasy dish water with pancake buttons floating around, when I noticed the clock said 7:45. Mass was at 8, school even later. I could go Mass. What to do? Dirty dish water or Mass, which was more important? So I started to go to Mass.
When the Second Vatican Council turned altars around and invited us to worship in English, we were ready in this parish. We knew we are the Church, the People of God, worship is our work and requires our talents and commitment. Leonard and Martin Schmidt started serving as young adults and graduated to ushering. Women have been leaders in the parish. Women have kept us singing and praying, organized us—Anna, Ruth, Margie, Francis, Hilda, Audrey, Bonita, Fran whose dressing is better for being made in her wash tubs.
More recently immigration has touched and stretched us. When migrant workers came to Bonanza Valley after we began to irrigate the sandy land and plant different crops, Sister Adela Gross and Sister Mary Weidner came to help us welcome them. Priests came who spoke Spanish and linked us with our diocesan mission in Venezuela. Our Spanish-speaking brothers and sisters enlarge our community and teach us about the bigger church of which we are a tiny part. They call us out of our silos. We remember that we have all immigrated or migrated here from somewhere.
As the parish celebrates its centennial, the Village of Brooten is celebrating 125 years. It’s not a Catholic town. Who knew Stearns County was 95% Catholic? I was the only Catholic kid in my grade in elementary school. Our parish community has a long history of living with neighbors who went to other churches. I remember my grandpa Steve Mitchell going out on the sidewalk to talk to Pastor Bodin in Norweigan when he walked by. St. Donatus also has a history of cooperating with other Catholic parishes—with Sedan as our mission, with St. Anthony of Padua and now with Belgrade and Elrosa. As the Holy Spirit leads us into the future, we bring resilience to contend with change.
Today we gather at this Eucharist to celebrate our parish and families that have cultivated the Word of God in our lives. The future calls us to do what farmers always do: keep planting. We may never know for whom our lived faith plants a seed. Mr. Rausch never knew. We are good ground. Jesus promises yields abundant.