By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
As snow fell last winter in the town of East Pleasant Plain, Sara Bontrager and her husband, Mark, glided along the road in a horse-drawn buggy. She gazed at the old, vacant St. Joseph Parish rectory with its big windows, antique woodwork and ample living space. “I was in love with it already,” Sara recalled.
The Bontragers, who are Amish, had just moved to rural East Pleasant Plain from the nearby Kalona Amish community, which had grown too large for their comfort. Becoming part of the younger, more intimate Amish community in Washington County came at a price: a smaller home.
Although the Amish strive to live simply in accordance with their faith, Mark, Sara and their seven children were cramped in a two-bedroom residence on their new acreage. Craving their own space, the two teenage sons began camping in the backyard once the weather got warmer. Eventually, the Bontragers hoped to expand the living space or build new, but they weren’t sure when or how.
The Bontragers’ neighbors, Leonard and Mary Ann Drish, are members of Ss. Joseph & Cabrini Parish in East Pleasant Plain and were aware of the Bontragers’ living situation. Coincidentally, the parish had been trying to decide what to do with the old rectory. A priest hadn’t lived there for about 30 years; a religious sister lived there for a while but moved on about five years ago. The parish was wary about renting out the house or selling it to just anyone, Leonard said. It needed to go to someone who would love and care for it.
Around the time the Bontragers came to town, the parish council had been in talks with another Amish family, but the deal fell through. Mark and Sara were very interested in the five-to-six bedroom home, built around 1903. After taking a tour, they were even more impressed. “It had been maintained so perfectly. No deterioration, brand new roof, no water damage,” Mark said.
The parish agreed to sell the house to the Bontragers for $1 in mid-2016. That payment, combined with the cost of moving the house to the Bontragers’ homestead about three miles away and setting up amenities there cost a little less than half of building a new home, Mark estimated. The two parties cleared the move with lawyers and waived parish liability for any damage or injury that might occur during the move.
Mark said this type of transaction isn’t common among Amish, but it does occur from time to time because of the difficulty in finding an Amish-suitable home in the “public market.” Modern homes aren’t built for Amish-preferred propane and wood-burning energy sources. Additionally, well-maintained older homes aren’t easy to find. Such a move has occurred once before in the Diocese of Davenport; last year, St. Mary Parish in Richmond essentially donated its unoccupied rectory to a nearby Amish family.
In early October, about 20 family members and friends helped professional mover Andy Mullet, an Amish man from Seymour, Iowa, lift the East Pleasant Pain rectory off its foundation and onto wheeled beams. The process took about a week.
Teresa Mottet, who was born in the late 1920s and grew up attending Mass in East Pleasant Plain, drove up every day during the house-moving process to observe. She remembered taking first Communion pictures outside the rectory and, later, attending parish council meetings and prayer group meetings there. In the spring and fall, women parishioners would give the rectory a thorough cleaning. Sometimes, priests would celebrate Mass with small groups in the dining room, she recalled. “I have a sentimental connection with the house. It’s been there as long as I can remember. … I had to come and say goodbye to it,” she said.
Shirley VanDee, parish life coordinator for Ss. Joseph & Cabrini Parish, was there daily, too. She noted that Mark always greeted her and was effusive in his gratitude. “It was a blessed feeling for the parish to be able to gift the family with the home,” she said.
On Oct. 12, the workers attached the house to a large semi-truck trailer, and Leonard Drish attached a bulldozer to the front of the convoy for added power. Helpers peeked out of the upstairs windows to cut any branches in the house’s way. The house traveled over gravel roads and cornfields en route to its destination. Local Amish families and school children, clad in black and dark blue jackets for warmth, lined up at the foot of the Bontragers’ driveway to watch.
Helpers leveled the ground below the house before removing the wheels and supports. The older Bontrager sons brought blankets into the home and slept there the first night. Soon after, the younger daughters darted up the stairs and ran around, smiling and laughing. “It was a pure picture of bliss,” Mark recalled, although he admits it took him a few days to relax enough to join in the celebration. “I couldn’t believe we had a real home again,” Sara said. “We can all sit at the same table.”
The couple looks forward to being able to host large groups of church and family members in the home. Although they are still in the process of installing a wood-burning heating stove and repairing the chimney, they hosted about 50 family members from as far away as Kansas and New York for Thanksgiving.
The Bontragers plan to invite the Ss. Joseph & Cabrini Parish Council to their home when the move is complete. While that isn’t likely to happen until early January, Sara considers the home to be the best Christmas gift she’s ever received.
Mark said, “We figured the Lord would provide, and he has. It’s amazing.”