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Prairie Landmark vs. Vatican II: Strasburg Catholics Split Over Renovation

Conrad, Marc. "Prairie Landmark vs. Vatican II: Strasburg Catholics Split Over Renovation." Bismarck Tribune, 1 February 1987, sec. A1, A12.


Strasburg – “Why are you doing this to my church, Father?” asked a 91-year-old parishioner last week.

Above him loomed Strasburg’s Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, praised by many as the most beautiful in the state.

It has vaulted ceilings covered with large-scale paintings of biblical themes, colorful statues, ornately decorated confessionals, stations of the cross, a pulpit and a high, white altar flanked on either side by smaller ones. The building is listed on the National Register of Historical Places.

The elderly man helped build this marvel 75 years ago, and now he and many oh his neighbors fear the pressure of modernize will destroy its unique beauty.

In a community were nearly everyone is devout Catholic, the controversy over the cherished church is heartfelt and sometimes bitter.

Many parishioners, most of them older people, are wondering why their church must be remodeled to fit the strictures of Vatican II more than 20 years ago.

“Our forefathers went through a lot of sweat, heartaches and hardships to build this church,” says Mylene Zacher of Strasburg, whose grandfather was among the founders.

“I feel it was a gift from our ancestors and we should keep it like it is.”

The Rev. Jerome Kautzman, who has proposed changes in the church interior, soothes the parishioner and downplays the controversy.

It’s an internal matter and he won’t tell The Tribune specifically what he has in mind, but several parishioners say he plans to remove altars, confessionals, statues and other icons from the church.

The world council of Catholic bishops known as Vatican II called for changes in church liturgy that largely eliminated Latin Language. The council also called for a return to less ornate church décor in line with the simplicity of the earliest Christian churches.

Kautzman insists no changes will be made without the consent of the congregation. He admits not everyone wants change, but says only five had told him that they’re against it.

Kautzman says that confessionals, the high altar, side altars and pulpit have lost their functional value in the church.

Several parishioners told The Tribune they aren’t against remodeling as long as the beauty of their church is preserved. And they say they like Kautzman.

Others, including Al Kramer, are more adamant. “If you want to change liturgy, there are plenty of churches around,” Kramer say. “You can switch churches. But leave this one intact.”

Still, some people are in favor of Kautzman’s ideas.

Leo Kramer of rural Strasburg says the church would look better if the confessionals, altars and most statues were removed.

Kramer says he thinks more parishioners are in favor of change than against.

Opponents argue that what their ancestors did should not be changed, he says, but “I also say, the same ones aren’t driving a horse and buggy like their ancestors did, either.”

Leonard Weichel, a former member of the Sts. Peter and Paul church council and its building and maintenance committee, disagrees. He says a door-to-door survey of parishioners would show at least 85 percent of the parish is against changing the interior.

Weichel resigned from both the church council and its building and maintenance committee because he’s against making changes that the majority doesn’t agree with. He says Kautzman is smart and uses “psychology” to get his way. “Business wise, it’s one way – his way,” Weichel says.

Al Kramer, a retired Strasburg businessman, agrees with Weichel, saying people in the congregation are opposed to change, but are afraid to speak up.

Many were christened in the church and expect to be buried in its cemetery.

Kramer says people feel trapped between the wishes of church officials and the legacy of their ancestors. They can’t imagine changing the church any more than they can imagine disagreeing with a priest.

What gripes the 60-year-old Kramer is that the church seems to be imposing change on a parish made up of many senior citizens and few young people.

The older folks were reared with the Catholic faith, the most important force in their lives. “The Catholic religion was driven into us by our parents with a sledge hammer. And now all of a sudden you’re supposed to change at my age?”

“Throwing away the statues is like throwing away the only picture of your mother.”
But Kautzman, who formerly served St. Joseph’s Church in Mandan, says old people can accept change. He says people at St. Joseph’s Church, which has just as high a percentage of old people as Sts. Peter and Paul, often accepted change more easily than teen-agers.

He says the simple prescriptions of Vatican II need to be studied to be understood.

“The people who are rejecting Vatican II simply haven’t studied what it’s all about.”

Kautzman says the changes won’t be pushed down the congregation’s throats. He says the people are going through an educational process in which they will have a chance to explore their options and give opinions before decisions are made.

James Schwab of Strasburg said Kautzman recently gave a sermon about the need for the congregation to change. The priest piled rocks on one side of him and set a plant on the other. It was a simple illustration of his lesson: that the congregation has a choice of sitting like a pile of rocks or changing, which will enable them to grow like the living plant.

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune

The Rev. Jerome Kautzman finds himself the center of attention over his proposed renovation of the church’s interior.
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