By Celine Klosterman
FARMINGTON – Tucked in the corner of sparsely populated Van Buren County, St. Boniface Parish offers a community for Catholics living up to 20 miles away in Iowa and Missouri. Spread out among three school districts, parishioners don’t often see each other during the week, but on Sundays, “the church is bopping,” said member Rita Wenke. “It becomes a family.”
The parish’s roughly 100 families will gather Dec. 15 for a milestone: St. Boniface’s 150th anniversary. Bishop Martin Amos will preside at Mass in the church at 10:30 a.m.; four priests who have served St. Boniface will concelebrate. A potluck follows.
Attendees will celebrate a history that dates to 1863, when the first St. Boniface Church was built. For part of the 19th century, a priest served the Farmington parish as well as communities in Milton, Montrose and String Prairie. In each place, Catholics gathered for Mass about once a month, according to a St. Boniface historical account.
From 1908-09, St. Boniface parishioners helped build a new church and rectory for $6,000. As the parish grew, it broke ground in 1982 for a larger church. The building’s basement offered much-needed space for religious education classes – formerly held in the rectory – and parish events. But in hopes of avoiding debt, parishioners waited years for donations to come in to finish the church’s worship space, said Mark Meek, parish council president. Bishop Gerald O’Keefe dedicated the church in 1991.
The old church was later razed. But materials from its altar were used in the new altar, and items down to the cupboards from the old sacristy found a home in the new church, said Wenke, Altar & Rosary Society president.
For much of St. Boniface’s history, priests who lived in Farmington served the mission parish of St. Mary’s in nearby String Prairie. Catholics nicknamed the local community “BonMar,” a name that stuck even after St. Mary’s closed in 1996, Wenke said.
Since that year, the Farmington parish has been served by the pastor living at St. Mary’s in West Point, more than 20 miles away.
In an area with more Methodists and Baptists than Catholics, St. Boniface parishioners need to be strong in their faith, Wenke said. “You really have to want to be a Catholic when you have to drive five miles to find another one.”
“I think the reason families come here is they’ve told us they feel welcome,” Meek said.
In 2006, the parish played a role in helping the local community heal after Shawn Bentler of Bonaparte killed his parents and three teenage sisters, members of St. Boniface. After the tragedy, “People were looking for someplace to go, so we opened the church that night,” Wenke said. Area clergy, people of no faith background and teachers of the slain students gathered for a vigil. “Another lady and I led the rosary. People said afterward it brought some kind of peace; they thanked us for having the church there.”
Today, Masses at St. Boniface are filled with children, and the parish sent several youths to the National Catholic Youth Conference, Wenke said. The parish has strong faith formation staffers, Meek added.
Sister Margaret Kruse, who served as parish minister from 1977-85, encouraged parishioners to continuing calling each other to be witnesses of God. In a letter acknowledging St. Boniface’s 150th anniversary, the current resident of Milwaukee wrote: “Continue to open your arms of love and accept all of God’s people. Then be aware of what others may be saying, ‘See how much they love one another. I want to be with them, too.’
“Blessings to you as you enter into your next 150 years as church.”