The Feast of Corpus Christi

“Well, we have to go to Mass SOMEWHERE,” I replied when Lillian suggested we drive 50 miles to participate in the annual Feast of Corpus Christi Mass at St. Clement’s Church in the rural community of Haymarsh.

And so yesterday we stepped back in time, to 1937, or maybe 1887, and drove west on Interstate 94, then north on a series of gravel roads through pastures turned green by spring rains to a tiny German community peopled by families—not many of them any more—with names like Gietzen and Duppong to celebrate the earth, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, and a simpler time in a simpler place in our all-too-complicated and dangerous world.

St. Clement’s Catholic Church was built in 1887, according to Renae Duppong, who lives next door and who has taken on the task of organizing the annual Feast of Corpus Christi Mass and celebration. And a feast it is. I’ve never seen a more bountiful potluck supper than that brought by the 125 or so people who attended Saturday. A bounty almost—but not quite—embarrassing to a bunch of Catholics.

I filled my plate modestly, for me—a helping of pasta and pepperoni hotdish, one big spoonful of corn, a small dollop of pale green and pink marshmallow fruit salad, a large dollop of glorified rice, some watermelon, two small brownies, a cookie and a cup of coffee. I could have gone back five more times and not sampled everything provided by mostly a bunch of farm wives on the two long tables.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Supper came after a two-hour service both inside and outside the beautifully maintained rural church—not the original 1887 building but a “new” one built in 1937 after a series of fires. The bishop closed the church in 1992, because there was no longer a sufficient population to support it, and since then it has only a couple of masses a year, said by a visiting priest.

This year, the visiting priest was young Father John Paul Gardner, a local boy, raised down the road in New England, who now serves a parish in Fort Yates on the Standing Rock Reservation. He was delightful, although he managed the longest Liturgy I’ve attended for a while as we knelt a bit painfully on aging knees on sturdy old hard wood kneelers, much unlike the soft padded ones we are all used to in our home parishes, sending, I decided, a message that said “Hey, you’ve only got to kneel on those once a year, so hang in there with me, okay?”

Everything about the service took me back in time, with some modern updates. Much of the Mass Father John Paul celebrated, for example, was in Latin, as it was when I was an altar boy 60 years ago, but it wasn’t the Latin I remembered from those years. Just like the English version of the Mass has been updated, with “modern” language, so has the Latin version. So I just closed my eyes during those parts and said it (actually, we sang most of the Latin parts) as I remembered it from 1956.

At communion time, we walked to the front and knelt on kneelers as we did in my youth, and accepted communion on our tongues. A host only—no wine. Appropriate, I suppose to the Feast of Corpus Christi—the Body of Christ.

There followed a long procession to an outside altar behind the priest, under a canopy, as we were anointed by a light shower of rain, where we offered our first prayers for the earth and a good harvest. And then we processed back into the church for our final prayers.  Here they are.

Blessing of the Fields and Flocks

Intercessions

The Lord and Father of us all, looking with benign providence on His children, gives them nourishment and growth by blessing the earth with the fruitfulness that sustains human life. As children of the Father, we bring these prayers before him.

Father John Paul: You have called us, as Saint Paul says, a field under your cultivation; grant that by doing Your will in all things, we may remain always close to you.

Us: Lord, hear our prayer.

Father John Paul: You have told us that Christ is the vine and we are the branches; grant that by living in Your son we may produce good fruit.

Us: Lord, hear our prayer.

Father John Paul: You bless the earth and abundance flows in its pastures; grant that by Your blessing our fields may yield the food we need.

Us: Lord, hear our prayer.

Father John Paul: You make the wheat grow that provides our daily bread and the gift of the Eucharist; give us a crop made rich by abundant rain and fertile soil.

Us: Lord, hear our prayer.

Father John Paul: Let us pray: All-holy Lord and Father, You have commanded us to work the land and cultivate it.  Your devoted people now pray that You will grant us an abundant harvest from our fields, vineyards, and orchards. In Your goodness, protect our lands from wind and hail and let a rich crop grow from the seeds we plant. We ask this through Christ our Lord.

Us: Amen.

And that was that. Best prayers I’ve taken part in for a while. I think we’ll do it again next year.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about that “harvest from our . . . vineyards . . .” well, yep, there is one, right across the road, where the Duppongs grow grapes for wine and the table. One of the few in North Dakota. I said my “Lord, hear our prayer” with a little more gusto on that one.

And one more thing: If you’re wondering about the name Haymarsh, Doug Wick , in his book North Dakota Place Names, says the community was founded in 1891 around St. Cement’s Catholic Church, and was named for the natural feature nearby, a large marsh, where the farmers harvested hay after the waters receded at the end of summer. The post office closed in 1920, but the church survived until 1992.  The marsh survives too—it looks to me like it might be as much as 500 acres, and it was full of water yesterday. I need to go back there in August to see if it’s ready for haying, and if anyone still is. I don’t know if this will work for you, but you can try clicking here for a satellite view of the marsh.

Here are a few photos I snapped yesterday. This blog is not really set up for photos, so I just attached them at the end, to give you a visual sense of our experience.

Father John Paul Gardner prepares for Mass at St. Clement's Catholic Church
Father John Paul Gardner pauses to say goodbye to St. Clement’s Catholic Church after mass.
It's caving time in rural Morton County. Mamas and babies await their trip to their summer pasture in a feed lot next to Clement's Church. The Cemetery, with headstones dating back to the 1880s, is in the background.
It’s calving time in rural Morton County. Mamas and babies await their trip to their summer pasture in a feedlot next to Clement’s Church. The St. Clement’s Cemetery, with headstones dating back to the 1880s, is in the background.
Father John Paul Gardner leads attendees in prayer at an outside altar.
Father John Paul Gardner leads attendees in prayer at an outside altar.
Father John Paul visits with churchgoers after Mass.
Father John Paul visits with churchgoers after Mass.

 

As a fundraiser for the church, the local ladies made kuchen and sold them for $12. We bought peach.
As a fundraiser for the church, the local ladies made kuchen and sold them for $12. We bought peach.
The Duppong vineyard and orchard, across the road from the church.
The Duppong vineyard and orchard, across the road from the church.
Grave marker in St. Clement's Cemetery
Grave marker in St. Clement’s Cemetery
They Haymarsh.
The Haymarsh.

5 thoughts on “The Feast of Corpus Christi

  1. Put me down as a protestant sinner who enjoys reading about your positive experience — one which obviously affected you deeply. I expect you to now have a kinder face and attitude toward us misled Republicans. (Sorry, I couldn’t find that little smiley face guy).

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  2. Wonderful piece, Jim.

    After we got married, our home parish was like this one. Miner Parish about 20 miles north of Morristown, S.D. It opened in the early 1900’s and closed in the late 80’s. At the end, it served 8 families that had 5 different mailing addresses. Not many catholics there

    The original church burned in the early 60’s before I was a Catholic. The Bishop said that the church would be closed and that the Diocese would take the insurance money. The parishioners raised enough money in about a week to build a new church—–a steel building on a slab.

    When it closed the last time, the Bishop wanted it to remain open for a once a year mass but it was decided to give the building to the Cannonball parish for the cost of moving it—and without the Bishop’s approval. I think it has since burned.

    The stories of our heritage have so much value and a help in us understanding our past. It is very important to have this knowledge. It might give us some direction in making our State better as I believe our ancestors did and would want today.

    Our current politics, at least to me, seem to be moving away from the principals that made us who we are. Not nostalgia but an understanding of what self-government should look like. When I watch tv today, I see no resemblance to those ideals.

    Thank you for your work. My faith tells me that we can do better and that it is up to us to make it so.

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  3. Our rural church closed in 1973, (Stone Lutheran), If you ever want to see it contact me and we can have a visit there. Our son Jon was baptized there at the closing service.

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  4. Jim and I attended a Mass celebrating the Feast of Corpus Christi at Haymarsh several years ago. It was very memorable Our friend Hillary Gietzen scolded us and told us that we had sat on the Wehri side of the church. The procession really brought back long ago memories. Thanks for the nice story.

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