Fr. Callistus Rectenwald
In 1927, Fr. Callistus Ractenwald arrived to be the priest at St. Boniface. He was born in 1897 in Pittsburgh, PA. and was raised in this large industrial city of western Pennsylvania. His parents had ten children (four boys - six girls) and he was the second oldest. As a boy and young man, Callistus assisted his father, Mr. Louis A. Rectenwald, in the operation of the family drugstore.
Callistus began his studies for the priesthood at a Benedictine College. After a year of study there he transferred to St. Fidelis Seminary in Herman, PA. to study for the Capuchins. Completing his novitiate, he came to St. Fidelis Monastery in Victoria, KS to study philosophy. After his theological training at SS. Peter and Paul's Monastery in Cumberland, MD., Father was ordained on June15, 1926, by Archbishop Curley of Baltimore, Maryland. His first appointment was to major in education at Catholic University of America. The next year at the age of 30, he came to Kansas to become the full time priest at St. Boniface.
The great open plains, the German speaking people, their living habits and the climate were all so different in comparison with his home state of Pennsylvania. It must have been quite difficult because there was no electricity, only candles and kerosene lamps. There was no indoor water supply or bathroom, only an outhouse (called a “nushnik” by the Volga Germans). Growing up in the city and now making his home on the Kansas prairie, Father had to learn how to light the stove and use wood, coal or cow chips to heat the small little four room home. He learned how to bake bread and cook on the top of a two burner kerosene stove. It was a treat when the farm women would prepare meals and deliver fresh baked goods or invite Father to join them at their homes for a visit.
He learned about gardening from the nearby farm families and started his own garden which he had to hand carry every drop of water to the garden spot with a two gallon porcelain bucket from the hand pump well. Father Callistus started many trees at Vincent, even during the dry dust bowl years. He watered and cared for them, and many of the elm and cedar trees are still standing today. He knew that if he was able to get the trees growing good, he would have shade in the summer and protection from wind in the winter. He created a beautiful surrounding for his church that was located out on the hill in the country. Some called it the “Pearl of the Prairie”.
Big Creek was located only a quarter mile from his home and he liked to visit that area as often as possible. He enjoyed exploring the trees, rocks, plants and simple curiosities that Mother Nature provided along the creek. He would often times take a few alter boys with him on trips to the creek to carry back some rocks, wood or moss that he had ideas for new and special projects. It was because of his love of nature and collecting rocks that led him to one of his most impressive projects at St. Boniface Church – creating a display resembling the city of Bethlehem. Over the years, Father learned many skills he needed to maintain his church. He became a good repairman, painter, worked with wood and would sew and mend the church vestments. He could do farm chores, was a really good piano player and in his spare time he enjoyed sitting in his old rocking chair and putting rosaries beads together. Every year, Callistus worried that his church superiors, in their annual assignment session, might reassign him to a different parish. Father often prayed that he would not die alone by himself out in the country, but that he could die among the people he had served. His prayer was dramatically answered on the first Sunday after Easter in1980. On Easter Sunday, he was ill and unable to deliver his homily on that day. The following Sunday on April 13, he held his Easter sermon, and no sooner after had he finished Mass, he collapsed and died right there in the sacristy. He was 82 years old when he died.
The Easter Mass held on April 4, 2010, was said in honor of Father Callistus Rectenwald and the 30th anniversary of his death. The gift bearers for the Mass were the last Mass servers in 1980 and who remained members of the parish today. They were Terry Braun, Kevin and Galen Huser, Keith Leiker, and Darin VonLintel. The story of Father Callitus is unique in many ways and it is quite amazing that he was able to serve all but 18 months of his fifty-three years in the priesthood at St. Boniface.
Little Town of Bethlehem
Since 1927, members of St. Boniface parish have enjoyed the celebration of the birth of Christ with a very special Christmas Crib. When Father Callistus Rectenwald, O. F. M. Cap. came to the parish in 1927, he began a Nativity display resembling the city of Bethlehem. For 52 years, he lovingly built and maintained the beautiful Nativity scene with the help of the young boys of the parish.
Many things on the crib are centered around the song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" including: the pear tree, partridge, doves, hens, maid a milking, etc... Also, the countryside around the “Little Town of Bethlehem" with shepherds, sheep dogs, deer, birds, trees, rocks, streams and bridges, water wells and the Bethlehem Inn, which had no room for Mary and Joseph, were all represented.
The rocks and shells come from 105 different countries, many from the Pacific Islands and all 50 states. They represent people from all over the world, for whom Christ was born, lived, suffered and died for the redemption of all mankind.
Rocks came from places like the Philippines, Bora-Bora, Ethiopia, Barbados, the Soviet Union, Scandinavia and Vietnam. Jade came from Taiwan, and a special rock came from the cave of Lourdes where the Blessed Mother appeared to Bernadette. Peacock rocks from the Ozarks and Rocky Mountain rocks from Colorado are among the many other mineral rocks from all 50 states. All are nicely marked as to their origin and when visitors read the labels they are amazed at the many different locations the rocks came from.
Shells from Samoa, Caladonia and island beaches around the world are part of the collection. A sea urchin from the Caroline Islands, coral from the reefs of Australia and Hawaii, and many other shells from various states in the United States are all displayed.
The polished stones came from Milton Wellbrock, who lived and worked in the community and had a rock-polishing hobby that caught the eye of Callistus. The water wells were built to include a rope and bucket and were to represent the hand dug wells, a means-of obtaining water in the Bethlehem area at the time of Christ's birth.
The Bethlehem Inn and other buildings were built from scraps of wood and paneling covered with sand pebbles taken from the church driveway and glued to the walls, making a stone-effect building. The stable was constructed from wood taken from a pear tree from a nearby farm orchard to create a Moraccan 18th century style crib resembling those found in Pittsburg, PA where Callistus was born. He spent much of his boyhood visiting the many cribs constructed in the area churches with his parents.
The statues of the three kings are from Germany, as well as the figures of the Holy Family and some of the shepherds. The infant Jesus is from Spain. One of the large camels comes from the Holy Land and is
made of olive wood. An alabaster bird from San Marino, Italy, and cypress roots from Louisiana are samples of the many birds, plants and animals found on the crib. He used the Holstein cows and the maid on a stool milking a cow near the stable, along with the chickens and other animals to represent the many farms in the rural Vincent area. The dog near the Bethlehem Inn entrance was waiting for his master to arrive home.
Over the years, the construction of the nativity display has changed somewhat, as Callistus always found something new to add to his "Little Town of Bethlehem." Whenever one of the parishioners took a trip or when the young men were in service during the wars, they always remembered to bring back a souvenir for his crib. The Nativity scene, which began as a labor of love for Callistus, is now a monument to his memory. Each Christmas season since his death in 1980, members of the parish have set up the display as a tribute to its creator and as a memorial in his name, for the education of seminarians in the Capuchin order. The display is approximately 15’ wide and 12’ tall and fills the entire front right portion of the church.
Christmas time draws thousands of visitors to see this wonderful display which is open on Sunday afternoons in December and on New Years Day. Tours are available by calling 785-735-2767 or 785-735-9258.
St. Boniface Cemetery
The little country cemetery for the “Pearl of the Prairies” is located just to the north of the church on the east side of the road.
Old Vincent School House
621 Vincent Ave
Vincent, KS 67671
It is only fitting that the current owners who reside in the old Vincent School House are former school teachers. Eric and Pat Austin purchased the building in May 2000 and turned it into their country home. The school was built in 1925 of the same type of native Ellis County limestone that Grant’s Villa and many of the churches and other school buildings in the area were made of. The land the school house was built on had been in the Baier family for years and years. Susan (Baier) Legleiter and her husband Ron currently own the Grant’s Villa property and prior to that, Paul Baier owned the land and his dad and grandfather had owned the land surrounding the Grant’s Villa, including the farm ground were the school was built. Prior to this limestone school building, there was a small wood frame school north of this location. The stone used in the construction came from a nearby quarry owned by the Baiers. Even though this was a public school (District #49) Catholic nuns taught at the school all the years it was open. Students from the surrounding farms attended here until 1969. After it was closed, it sat empty and was later leased as a storage facility for antique dealers.
On Mother’s Day in 2000, the Austins saw an interesting ad in the Hays Daily News that listed the school for sale. They were still both teaching full time, but fell in love with the school and decided their project over the next several years would be to fix it up and turn it into the country home of their dreams. The main floor contained two large classrooms and has now become the kitchen, dining room and laundry room. Other classrooms were remodeled to be used as bedrooms. The lower level cafeteria and gymnasium was turned into a family room, guest room and bathroom. They wanted to keep as much of the original style as they could and that meant a mix of restoration and remodeling but keeping the tin covered ceilings and light fixtures. They even found use for the old blackboards and chalk trays.
Although the school is a private residence, visitors that drive by will certainly notice all of the improvements, landscaping and garden areas the Austins have added over the years. Each year when the Little Town of Bethlehem is on display at St. Boniface Church in Vincent, Pat Austin holds a Holiday Open House with a special Christmas tree decorated for each room. They welcome any visitors to the church to stop by and see the old school house. People who grew up in the Vincent area and attended school here love to come back and see the Christmas Nativity display and see the old school house. Many of the former students have provided interesting history about the building and other fascinating tidbits. In 1974, actress Jodi Foster was filmed at the Vincent School in several episodes for the television series Paper Moon. The television series was developed after the movie Paper Moon made its debut a year earlier. Ms. Foster was only 10 years old at the time. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paper_Moon_(TV_series)
The creek that flows to the west and north of Vincent provided much for the early pioneers. Although Big Creek was not really that large of a creek, it did provide two main things the settlers needed when they first arrived – water and wood. Before wells could be dug, the water from the creek was vital for household use, mixed to prepare concrete building materials and used for the livestock. The trees provided lumber for building homes and for burning in stoves. In fact, back then it was uncommon to see any dead or fallen trees blocking up the creek bed because the property owners cut and gathered all the wood they could find along the creek to use on the farm. That is not the case today. As you drive along the roads near Big Creek, you will see fallen and decaying trees or branches that have floated down stream and created a blockage of piled up debris.
In the winter time, ice was harvested from Big Creek. When it became very cold and the stream froze solid one to three feet deep, large solid blocks of ice could cut out. The ice could be sawed in blocks 2’ by 3’ using a hand operated, big tooth ice saw. They were loaded on horse drawn wagons and hauled to the farm ice cellars. An ice cellar was a large hole in the ground about 12’ long by 12’ wide and 8’ or 10’ deep. These cellars had a wood roof built on top to protect them from the hot sun during the summer months. The cellars were walled on sides with limestone rocks and cement from lime and clay-type creek sand.
If the winters were too mild, then it was hard to get ice any thicker then 4-6”. The larger the chunks of ice they could handle, the better – because then it took the ice longer to melt through the spring and early summer. The ice blocks were packed tight in the cellar and chipped ice was filled in between the blocks to form a good solid block. The ice was then covered with a thick layer of straw to keep it insulated and cold for months. During the summer then, quantities of ice blocks were removed to place them in the top of the wooden ice box in the home. Ice from the creek water was not as clean as ice purchased in town from and ice house. It was a treat to buy some ice in town so the family could have some clean ice to enjoy an ice cold glass of tea or lemonade.
Although the property where Big Creek winds through the valley is private farm ground, a drive along Grants Villa Road from Pfeifer Ave and north on Vincent Ave during October makes for a beautiful drive in the country.
George Grant Villa
2680 Grants Villa Road
Victoria, KS 67671
Hours: Guided tours available by appointment only.
Originally a successful silk merchant, Grant came to America in 1872 in search of a place to build a country estate on which to retire. What he discovered was a new vision to turn the country into a major agricultural and livestock producing area. In the fall of 1872, Grant purchased an estimated 70,000 acres from the Kansas Pacific Railroad and then returned to England to organize a colony of British and Scotch noblemen. The group left England on April 1, 1873 with the necessary provisions, including several head of black polled Aberdeen Angus bulls, a red shorthorn bull, thirty sheep and some horses. Upon their return to the area, Grant named the new settlement after Queen Victoria, and he and his companions began construction on homes and town buildings.
Grant was the leader of the new colony and had specific stipulations as to what types of homes were to be built, livestock to invest in and the crops they should cultivate. The four black Angus bulls that were brought on the journey became the breeding stock to cross with native Texas longhorns. This produced calves that survived well on the winter range and weighed more the next spring.
Grant’s hope for his country estate wasn’t forgotten in all of this. He had an English architect design his Villa which he built five miles south and one and one-half mile east of Victoria. The two story home was constructed of native limestone that was quarried near the site and it was built atop a hill overlooking Big Creek. The home featured a large double door front entry way, open staircase, a study and wine cellar in the basement. The Villa became the center of social activities for the English colonists and was a comfortable residence for the Grant family during George’s final years.
George became ill and died at the Villa on April 28, 1878. Margaret Grant, Grant’s niece and housekeeper inherited the house and some of the estate. In October 1878 she married John Duncan, a farm hand. They had two sons, John and George and a daughter Margaret. Early in the spring of 1897, with the land under foreclosure, Mr. and Mrs. Moritz Baier purchased it from the Duncans. They lived at the home until their retirement in 1935 and then their son, William and his family lived at the Villa until 1972. Paul Baier, the son of William, resided at the home with his family for over 35 years until they moved to Hays.
The Villa was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Although there have been some updates made in the home, the original structure made of native limestone is still intact. Black Angus cattle even still roam the pasture land around the Villa. In the October of 2011, Susan (Baier) Legleiter and her husband Ron purchased the property from Paul and Lucy Baier. They purchased 40+ acres, which includes the house and farmstead with additional acres adjoining. Since acquiring the property, they have totally renovated the home and property. The structure of the home is original as it was built with native limestone.
Visitors are welcome to drive through the loop road past the house or contact Ron Legleiter for a pre-arranged guided tour. It is their hope to preserve the memory of George Grant and his contributions to the agricultural life of Western Kansas.