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Little Cathedral on the Prairie

James C. Schaap

Cathedral of the Prairie

A couple of farmers don't just get together over coffee at the Coop and decide to build a cathedral like St. Anthony of Padua, Hoven, SD. Putting up a that sized cathedral requires a vision.


St. Anthony's visionary was a priest named Anthony Helmbrecht, who wanted a cathedral not unlike the ones he remembered from his Bavarian boyhood. In the early years of the 20th century he went door-to-door until he collected enough money to contract the artisans he wanted, who then began to build the "Cathedral of the Prairie."

Never heard of Hoven, SD? Most people haven't. It's in the middle of the vast reaches of Northern Plains. Nowhere really, Hoven’s population just 380 in 2017. You have to drive a long ways out of the way to get there, but you can't miss St. Anthony’s church, its twin towers 140 feet up above a landscape so flat all around you can't help think the world is.

Father Helmbrecht's vision was huge, but what's just as impressive about St. Anthony's is the way Hoven folks keep the place up. When a renovation was needed in 1980, one contractor suggested plastering the walls. Another said he couldn't guarantee a price, but it would likely be somewhere around half a million dollars. 

So the people did the work themselves--20,000 hours, four years, scaffolding all the way to the ceiling--up to the ceiling.  Three times they disassembled the structure and rebuilt. Brides walked right through it on their way to the altar. 

Credit James C. Schaap
St. Anthony's pipes

One Saturday morning I was there just after eight, alone. St. Anthony's sees thousands of visitors annually, but winter on the plains isn't particularly touristy. I walked around with a camera, shooting hither and yon. The stained glass is gorgeous, imported, created--can you guess?--in Bavaria.

In walked a silver-haired woman marketing people might look for if they needed a peppery Midwestern grandma. She served herself from the holy water in the hands of an angel at the entrance, then walked up front, and waved politely when she spotted me--I hoped I wasn't doing anything wrong. 

I was ready to leave, so I walked out the back of the sanctuary, where I spotted the stairway to the balcony, highly polished oak, but of such vintage that I wondered if it was wise for a man of my girth to ascend it. I wanted to see that almost divine sanctuary from on high. Trust me, it is perfectly beautiful. 

All that stenciling, all the decor that festoons the succession of gothic arches--all of that beauty got redone by some enterprising locals sitting way up there on pine scaffolding only barn builders could construct or trust. Imagine that. The idea is almost as beautiful as the sanctuary.

Once I was up there, that grandma in jeans and sweatshirt, came up too. She'd put hymn numbers on the signs up front, then came up, the stairway beneath her feet groaning more than a little.

She was the organist. She had to practice, and she assumed that I was up here because I wanted to see St. Anthony’s organ. She made it very clear to me that I would have to listen to her extol that instrument's virtues in detail and be sure to look and see every last one of the 1100 pipes.

Then she spread her music out in front of her. You may well assume, like me, that this Grandma Custodian/Musician was a master, had studied with great organ masters in Bavaria. What she played wasn’t exactly stunning.

James C. Schaap
The organist at St. Anthony's

The thing is, she's been playing in St. Anthony of Padua Church since 1949, and here's the real story: she is the last organist. Hoven's lost 20 percent of its population since 2000, and, besides, there's not a whole lot of call these days for organists. Guitar pickers?--maybe. But organists? There’s no line. No waiting.

So she's last, at this huge organ, in this gorgeous church. Standing there beside her right then, knowing all of that, made the short program she offered in the Cathedral of the Prairie something not only beautiful but just plain masterful. 

You should have been there. Really, you should have been there.

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