Russellville parish celebrates history, vitality, future


Sharon Murphy’s fingers reverently unpacked a treasure — three coins, some squared-off nails and a tiny, broken bottle.

They’re what remain of a time capsule that had been buried for nearly a century in the foundation of the old St. Michael Church in Russellville.

They sat forgotten in storage for another few decades until being rediscovered in time for the History Day to mark the 130th anniversary of St. Michael Parish’s founding.

“If this ain’t a miracle, I don’t know what is!” said Mrs. Murphy, whose late husband Joe first found the items while salvaging foundation stones from the old church in 1988.

Mrs. Murphy addressed her fellow congregants in the parish hall that had served as the parish’s house of worship from 1984 until the current church was completed in 2002.

“My kids were baptized here,” said Mrs. Murphy, who with her late husband joined the parish in 1985 where her parents had brought her for religious instruction each week when she was a girl.

Strength and adversity

Monsignor Robert A. Kurwicki, pastor, said St. Michael Parish has an interesting history and enjoys a good reputation among the priests of the diocese.

“I suspect that probably came to be because the parish had to go through the school of hard knocks,” he said.

He recounted how the parish has not had a residential pastor for most of its existence, that it had been closed twice and that the parishioners had worked valiantly to reestablish it in 1984 after a 15-year hiatus.

“Those things that don’t destroy you make you stronger,” he said. “Those things that are tests, sometimes of faith or ability, strengthen your resolve. And that helps make a good parish better.”

Good neighbors

The parish’s history committee worked for several months to organize the History Day celebration.

To facilitate proper social-distancing during the pandemic, they created six stations in separate areas of the parish hall, each pertaining to history.

There were photos and historical artifacts from days gone by.

Participants, over half of whom had been born or moved to the area after the parish reopened in 1984, enjoyed coffee and warm muffins while perusing photos, ephemeral.

Several wore specially designed T-shirts that said, “Growing Together for 130 Years.”

Each received a short, typewritten history of the parish, a transcript of longtime parishioners’ recollections, and a colorful commemorative card depicting the 1890 and 2002 churches.

Mike Broker, who served as the first interim parish council chairman when the parish reopened, showed a video compilation from his archives.

It included interviews with longtime parishioners, some now deceased, and highlights from the 2002 church dedication.

“I shot little bits and pieces of activities, getting ready for barbecues, people working together,” he said. “I asked people why they wanted to help build a new church and so on.”

Located 14 miles southwest of Jefferson City in rural Cole County, Russellville is a growing bedroom community for the capital city.

Father Van der Sanden, an assistant pastor of St. Peter Parish in Jefferson City, began a mission for 15 German Catholic families in a nearby settlement called Stringtown in 1860.

He offered Mass once every six weeks in parishioners’ homes, according to early 20th-century Church historian Father John Rothensteiner.

Fr. Van der Sanden in 1862 blessed a cornerstone for a church that never got built, although the Stringtown cemetery and a stone foundation still exist on a hill overlooking Route C.

Father John Schramm established what is now St. Martin Parish in St. Martins in 1885. Two years later, he founded a Catholic mission in Russellville and set the cornerstone for the first St. Michael Church, which was dedicated on Oct. 22, 1890.

The mission became a parish on Sept. 26, 1906, with Father Joseph Wehner as its first pastor.

Attended by priests from St. Martins, St. Michael Parish closed for four years in the 1930s. Father Edward A. Bruemmer, associate pastor of St. Peter Parish in Jefferson City, brought Sunday Masses back to Russellville in about 1934.

He also brought School Sisters of Notre Dame from Jefferson City to catechize the children.

Hope springs eternal

Priests from the La Salette Seminary in Jefferson City began serving the parish in the 1950s, alternating with associate pastors from St. Peter Parish.

While Father Norman J. Ahrens was pastor, Russellville parishioners built a brick parish hall near the old church.

Dwindling membership led to the shuttering of St. Michael Parish in February 1970. But while becoming active in other parishes, Russellville’s Catholics never gave up hope of being brought back together.

The local Catholic population continued to grow as the years went by. The pastor in St. Martins looked for a way to alleviate some of the crowding at his Masses. He and a group of Russellville-area Catholics in 1984 presented to Bishop Michael F. McAuliffe, now deceased, a proposal to reopen St. Michael Parish.

With his advisors’ unanimous support, the bishop appointed 12 volunteers to an interim parish council, charging them with meting out boundaries and assembling a budget.

“We laid out a big map, and I circled everybody in the area that might make up this parish,” recalled Mr. Broker, who served as the first parish council chairman. “We asked to have a priest offer Mass and take care of the sacraments, and we’d take care of the rest.”

On holy ground

The old church was too small for all the people who wanted to join the parish, so Masses would be celebrated in the parish hall.

Bishop McAuliffe offered the first Mass on Christmas Eve, with about 200 parishioners attending.

Thereafter, parishioner Tom LePage would drive his flatbed truck to the St. Martin Church each Saturday afternoon, load up about 100 chairs, take them back to Russellville and set them “Then after Mass we played Lazarus and asked everyone to ‘take up their chair and walk’ and hand them to the man with the truck, and he’d haul them back and put them away,’” Mr. Broker recalled.

St. Martin Parish eventually donated a set of chairs to St. Michael Parish to keep.

The old St. Michael Church was eventually deemed unsafe and was demolished in 1988. Most of its furnishings were taken to the hall or put into storage.

The congregation had begun to outgrow the hall for Sunday Mass when Franciscan Sister Donna Eggering succeeded Sister Lois Martens of the School Sisters of Notre Dame as parish life coordinator.

Sr. Donna helped work toward building a new church.

On Christmas Eve of 2000, 16 years to the day after the parish reopened, Bishop John R. Gaydos, now retired, led the parish in breaking ground for a 7,200-square-foot, contemporary church building of brick, concrete and heavy timber.

He anointed the altar and dedicated the church in June 2002.

“This is truly a gate of heaven,” he said in his homily. “This is truly a place where God dwells in our midst. May this moment be a true moment of dedication for all of us participating in this ceremony, especially for you who are so generously committed to the work of St. Michael the Archangel here in Russellville.”

The parish is now within $13,000 of paying off the loan on the church.

“We also built a new parish house, and that’s paid for,” said Mr. Broker. “We’ve made repairs to the hall and added onto it, with new bathrooms. And the Knights of Columbus built a cook house.”

Succeeding Sr. Donna were Deacon Robert and Mildred DePyper, followed by Sister Mary Rost of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.


“Giving and giving”

Msgr. Kurwicki said St. Michael Parish’s history is the like the history of every family.

“We have good days and bad days, we have sickness and health, we have richer and poorer,” he said. “But we’re together until death do us part!”

He talked about the difference between parish viability and parish vitality — “the difference between being passive and active.”

“The Lord wants us to be active,” he said. “And we are very active. For our size, we do a lot!”

St. Michael parishioners also cooperate well with fellow Christians of the Russellville and Lohman Area Ministerial Alliance.

“We need to be thankful to God for that,” he said.

Dr. Leigh Lepper became Catholic in 2011, shortly before meeting her husband, Dan.

She became a member of St. Michael parish with him when they got married.

“And I fell in love with this parish,” she said. “It’s the most welcoming, wonderful group of people that there ever was.”

She said the people are enthusiastic about welcoming, community, outreach and especially the Eucharist.

“It’s a family,” she said. “People work together, we work hard, we do stuff. We’re working in the community and we’re bringing the Gospel to the people and it’s just delightful to be part of the history here.”

Having only one Mass each weekend helps tighten the bonds.

“And they keep right on giving and giving and giving of themselves,” she said.

“Blessing box”

Msgr. Kurwicki blessed the parish’s new Blessing Box during the celebration.

Parishioner Mike Kirchner and his brother Randy built the substantial, weatherproof outdoor cupboard at the Railroad Avenue entrance to the St. Michael Parish property.

The Blessing Box was inspired by a similar effort started by the late Dr. Kevin Kohler at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church near Brazito, where Dr. Kohler was pastor until he died recently due to complications from COVID-19.

The St. Michael Parish Outreach Ministry (POM) will stock the Blessing Box in Russellville with  nonperishable food and personal-care items for people in need.

“We will be advertising the Blessing Box to the community with direct emails to the local churches and reaching out to schools, as well as posting on Facebook,” the POM committee stated.

The sign on it says, “Feel free to take what you need or to give what you can. Blessings are in the giving and the receiving.”

“Where we stand”

Mrs. Murphy’s late husband bought the foundation stones from the old church because he loved building things out of brick and rock.

He donated the cornerstone back to the parish.

In the early 2000s, young volunteers from the diocesan CHRISTpower retreat incorporated the stone into the Marian grotto they built outside the church.

“That cornerstone is what Mary stands in the grotto,” said parishioner Jim Call.

“We stand on a foundation built by our ancestors and Christ is the cornerstone,” said Msgr. Kurwicki. “May we never forget where we’re from and where we stand.”