By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
Each week when John Stukerjurgen heads into town for Mass, cars pass by him in a blur. He has no choice but to take things slow – “Little Girl” can only go about 10 miles an hour.
Not that he’s complaining. “I get to see the whole area. So many people miss it because it flies by. I get to enjoy it,” he said. “When it’s dark in the winter the moon shines and it’s just beautiful, the lights reflecting off the snow. And in the summer, I get to see the wildflowers.”
For years, the 38-year-old from rural Salem has been taking a horse and buggy to Mass at St. John the Baptist Church in Houghton and St. James Church in St. Paul. Both towns are about two miles from his house. As a horse breeder and trainer, he started riding to church as a way to give his horses some exercise. Sometimes he’ll take an open wagon, other times a closed-in carriage with headlights.
Little Girl, Belle and Sassafrass are Haflinger-Belgian horses that take turns making the journey. Little Girl takes the job most weeks; she’s a lot bigger and stronger than the name would indicate. Sometimes, a colt will tag along.
It can take up to 45 minutes for John to get to Mass and he admits the slow pace isn’t for everyone. He doesn’t know anyone else who regularly uses a horse as transportation to Mass. “I’m the only one crazy enough to run around that way! But I don’t have to pay for gas and it runs a lot cheaper.”
For a while, parking was an issue. There’s a light pole near St. James Parish in St. Paul which is sturdy and works well for tying up the horses, but the tree he used at St. John’s in Houghton was less than ideal. Last year, St. John parishioners created a parking space for the horses by installing a hitching post. Father Bruce DeRammelaere, pastor of St. James and St. John, said he believes it’s the only hitching post in the diocese.
The horses have proven to be a great conversation starter and an unexpected evangelization tool. John has heard that some families attend Mass more often because the children look so forward to seeing and petting the horses. Non-Catholics in the communities of less than 200 people apiece know that John is heading to church when they see the horses coming. When they stop to converse, John is able to share his faith with them.
The extended drive time has given John plenty of opportunity to cultivate his faith. Especially on days when he’s feeling tired and impatient, he turns to Jesus and Mary and passes the time in prayer. If the horse has a little extra pep that day and arrives at church early, John uses the extra time to pray the rosary or go to confession.
John may be taking a road less traveled but, he said, “As long as I clean up the manure, no one seems to care.”