It happens every December. St. Francis Parishioners walk into the church on the Monday before Christmas and it has changed. Window and choir loft swags, trees, wreathes, column decorations, a nativity scene and thousands of beautiful lights that weren’t there during Sunday Mass. A few days later, dozens of beautifully arranged poinsettias appear. It must be the work of elves!
The existing St. Francis Catholic Church was dedicated in May of 1884. But that was about sixteen years before it was completed to the point we recognize today. By 1900 the stained glass windows, taller steeple, and majestic altars were completed. But electric power was not available until around 1915. Early newspaper articles refer to gas jets that lit the church prior to electricity. Evergreen Christmas wreaths and live trees were illuminated with candles—a frightening thought by today’s standards.
But there was an earlier church. The original log and frame mission church was located about 215 feet west of our stone church. That church, with the mission that surrounded it, has been called “The Beacon on the Plains” and the “Cradle of Catholicism in Southern Kansas.” While the bell tower certainly was not decorated with a strand of electric lights, there can be no doubt that the Sisters of Loretto and the Jesuits recognized the birth of Christ with decorations that accented a nativity scene of some kind.
During the late 19th century the Jesuits and Lorettos departed and the Passionists took possession of the stone church. The Passionist priests, brothers, and students had to contend with the early flame-based decorations until electricity was installed—and early electric tree lights might have been nearly as dangerous as the candles. Those of us who are older remember more conventional decorations from the Passionist era. But as time passed, our parish was handed from the Passionists to the diocese. It was then that parishioners took over the job of decorating.
To say the annual decorating process is well organized is an understatement. Our church maintenance men, Larry and Charlie, set up the inside and outside cribs during the week before the interior decorating begins. Typically, on Sunday morning, after 10:00 Mass, a small crew starts moving tubs and boxes of decorations, and crib statues, down the narrow curved stairs from the old upstairs. At about noon a small army of 20 or more youth and adults start showing up to move the marked boxes to the appropriate areas and begin unpacking decorations. Over a period of about 3-4 hours wreaths, window and column decorations, trees, and other items are set up and plugged in. Among the most cherished features in the sanctuary area is the Memory Tree that is placed directly in front of the west altar. A few days later a nursery truck delivers dozens of beautiful poinsettias that are arranged by another small team of parishioners. Many of those plants honor the memory of past parishioners whose pictures are on the Memory Tree.
And there you are! That is how one of the most beautiful and photographed holiday church displays in our region happens. A few weeks later, the elves show up again and reverse the process. It is just that simple! Simple?
Come to think of it, maybe those elves are really angels.
This is the community website for the St. Francis de Hieronymo and St. Ambrose Catholic Churches in Neosho County, Kansas. Both churches are located in the center of the historic nine-county southeast Kansas area. We share one of the richest Catholic Heritages in Southern Kansas and the Four-State Region. For more information about our churches, history, organizations or programs browse our site including its links.