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The forms were in place, the concrete mixer was roaring to life and Father Francis O’Duignan’s dream was finally taking shape.
The priest who had spent nearly 22 years trying to get the Shrine of St. Patrick built in a town of that same name was going to pour the first load of concrete for the foundation.
He gathered the work crew, prayed the “Our Father,” gave the men a blessing and raced toward the ramp with a full wheelbarrow.
“Up and away he goes!” said Mike Whiston, whose father was the shrine’s general contractor. “And about halfway up the ramp, over the side Fr. O’Duignan went!”
The construction crew ran down to help him.
“I’m all right, boys,” he priest reassured them while cleaning his glasses. “And it’s okay to laugh.”
That was one of many stories Mr. Whiston heard when he was old enough to join his dad’s work crew years later.
He spoke to a receptive crowd during this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Celebration on March 12 at the shrine, located near the Iowa border in northeastern Missouri.
“What I’m trying to share today are the stories that I heard from the men who built this magnificent shrine,” said Mr. Whiston. “I want to give them proper honor and credit.”
He told of how his father assembled the spiral steel staircase in the shrine’s tapered bell tower, planed the front doors to a perfect fit, and improvised a way to lift the large stone cross onto the roof.
“Dad realized that this was something very special, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Mr. Whiston noted.
He said the shrine, completed in 1957, was Fr. O’Duignan’s dream, but he needed the entire St. Patrick community to bring that dream to fruition.
“Whenever I look up at that cross,” said Mr. Whiston, “I think, ‘Yeah, Dad. You pulled it off.’”
Well and good
Past and present parishioners arrived from near and far for Mass, a meal and a mountain of memories.
“We welcome you and are glad you’re all here,” said Father Robert Fields, pastor.
Descendants of John N. Kirchner, who was the town’s postmaster from 1899 to 1940 and helped Fr. O’Duignan design the famous shamrock cachet that still adorns March mail from the post office, filled pews near the front for Mass.
Fr. Fields and the event’s organizing committee honored Mr. Kirchner posthumously with this year’s Historic Preservation Award, for his enduring contributions to the life of the community.
Fr. Fields’s homily focused on the gospel passage of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well.
“She came to believe in the Son of God, that this gift of faith, the gift of salvation, was coming to her in the person of Jesus,” the priest noted.
“So, how is Jesus drawing out YOUR gift of faith this morning, calling you into a more loving and deeper relationship with him and the people you live and work with?” he asked.
“How is God challenging you this morning to open yourself more and more to his love and mercy that we’re all called to share with one another, every day of our lives?”
Good old Irish way
For Mass, Fr. Fields used the chalice that Fr. O’Duignan brought back from Ireland for the shrine’s dedication 66 years ago.
After Mass, he invited everyone to visit the sanctuary, the bell tower, the choir loft, the sacristy and the former baptistery, all adorned with priceless stained glass depicting saints in the style of the ancient Book of Kells.
Children gathered at the front of the church before the final blessing to sing an Irish lullaby and a praise anthem.
Directing them was Vanessa Gray, the newly-hired director of youth ministry and religious education for Shrine of St. Patrick Parish and neighboring St. Michael Parish in Kahoka.
Framed photos of weddings that were celebrated in the parish, from the 1880s up through last December, were displayed chronologically in the shrine.
“Constant and vital”
The general store and post office John Kirchner built near the church in 1914 remains a gathering place for people in the community.
As postmaster, he worked with Fr. O’Duignan to send mail throughout the country, asking for support to build a shrine suitable of the patron saint of Ireland and this bucolic village.
Mr. Kirchner’s grandson, Howard, accepted the award and spoke of his grandfather’s legacy.
“Sadly, Grandpa Kirchner did not live long enough to see the Shrine of St Patrick come to life,” the younger Mr. Kirchner noted. “But through his selfless example of leadership, giving and hard work, the Village of St. Patrick remains and thrives because there is an active Church at its core.
“Even with the changes in population, farming methods and employment patterns, the Shrine of St Patrick, this Catholic church, is the one thing that remains constant and vital in this community.”
Howard Kirchner said young people are moving back to places like St. Patrick, finding them to be good places to raise their families.
“St. Patrick has an ability to become part of who you are,” he stated. “St. Patrick is a community to which you belong. And St. Patrick is a place of great value.”
“Let everyone know”
Parishioner Roger Watson his sons Aaron and Joel spent the afternoon entertaining visitors with Irish music.
Soon thereafter, during the prayer service marking the event’s conclusion, Fr. Fields congratulated all the volunteers for a successful day of worship, remembrance, fellowship and fun.
“Please continue to let everyone know about our beautiful community and our beautiful shrine and the history and these windows and what they teach us about people who were faithful to God and his kingdom,” the priest requested.