They came from Besancon, a town in eastern France, in search of a better life. They found it in 1846 in eastern Allen County on the banks of the freshly drained Black Swamp. And when they were settled and prosperous these newly minted Americans built themselves a church.
“We're doing in this space what we intend to do for eternity in Heaven,” says Fr. Ben Muhlenkemp, “and that is just be together and worshiping the Lord.”
If rehearsing for Heaven is what parishioners do at St. Louis Besancon Catholic Church they couldn't find a more beautiful, more inspiring place to do it with its imposing ceiling and splendid stained glass windows. The church was built in 1871 next to the Catholic elementary school and today stands as a traditional Catholic sanctuary with ornate chancel, altar, baptismal and stations of the cross. But things were not always so. In the 1960's an unfortunate decision was made.
“The thought was 'Hey, there's so many statues in the church all this stuff is distracting...the church is falling behind let's be modern', says Fr. Muhlenkemp.
Being modern in the 1960's meant tearing down anything old and replacing it with boring. The statues were removed, the altar discarded and the sanctuary turned into this, a nondescript, cluttered and somewhat dumpy spectacle. It didn't last.
“I don't think it took too many years for people said 'we kind of like what we had before',” says Fr. Muhlenkemp.
Six years ago the classic sanctuary was restored to its nearly original appearance. The stained glass windows repaired and sealed, 1915 pipe organ with original manual bellows, was rebuilt. Behind the church rest the pioneers who built it, who settled this land, built lives for themselves and gave thanks for it. Men and women who knew hardship and prosperity and celebrated it all in their own little corner of Heaven out in 21 Country. This is Eric Olson reporting.