Strong seeds of Catholic Christianity, planted near the banks of the Osage River by a handful of immigrants in the 1830s, flourished to become the vibrant parish of St. Thomas the Apostle in St. Thomas.
This same strong faith and common goal was evidenced last fall when the parish celebrated its 150th anniversary.
Crowds of people with ties to the parish came to be with the locals in the spirit of a homecoming.
The celebration of the Eucharist on two occasions was the focal point.
At the first, Bishop W. Shawn McKnight said, “the humble beginnings of this parish underscore the point that with God, all things are possible.”
As early as 1838 with missionary visits of Jesuit Father Ferdinand Helias, Mass was celebrated in some of the homes of the founding families.
As the area grew, a log church was built in 1844 by the settlers.
This began a long history of parishioners offering up their time, talent and treasure.
St. Thomas the Apostle parish was canonically recognized as an independent parish in 1869 by Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick of St. Louis.
Father Aloysius Mayer served as the first pastor.
The parish had grown to 144 families by 1879.
Today, there are more than 230.
The present church, a soaring gothic edifice with colorful stained glass, was dedicated in October 1884.
In it together
According to the parish’s 150th anniversary book, the early settlers, primarily from Germany, endured hardships and obstacles in moving here and setting up their homesteads.
Elders of today’s parishioners told of long rides to church in wagons on muddy roads, even in the coldest winters.
Nieces took turns helping aunts when babies were born. Neighbors helped neighbors bring in crops or build barns.
When times were hard, crops and food were shared.
Tapping the roots
To prepare for the sesquicentennial, parishioners spent three years lovingly poring over documents, visiting with older parishioners and working together to show not only the history of the parish, but the deep faith and sense of community that binds them together.
When asked where God is in all this, parishioner Janet Lueckehnoff said: “God is in the very center, and we’re like family.”
Her husband, Bill, a member of the sesquicentennial committee and emcee of the sesquicentennial event, and parishioner Dale Herigon, both born and raised in St. Thomas, talked about the importance of the church bells.
Mr. Herigon has been keeping the bells ringing for over 30 years, providing maintenance for them and the intricate but rugged clockwork that keeps them keep time.
“For the folks around town, the bells get to be their friends,” he said.
The 150th anniversary book, with over 570 pages, is a treasure trove of pictures, history, human interest, and a testament to those who came before and to those who remain in St. Thomas.
Luebbering, the surname of approximately 40 families in the parish, dates back to 1844, when Johannes Heinrich Luebbering and his family immigrated from Germany to settle in Westphalia.
Twenty years later, the Luebberings were in St. Thomas.
The 60-plus grandchildren of John and Catherine (Wankum) Luebbering, descendants of these early immigrants, have been having reunions for over 40 years.
With crowds of more than 100, these cousins and their families gather in St. Thomas for a meal to reminisce and celebrate their connections through family and faith.
Always in thanksgiving for those who endured before them and in the shadow of St. Thomas Church.
Brian Luebbering, one of these descendants, was chairman of the sesquicentennial committee.
The ringing stopped
A devastating tornado struck St. Thomas in 1948.
The storm did the greatest damage to the church grounds, bringing down the steeple with its four big bells and four-faced clock, according to an article in the Jefferson City Daily Tribune newspaper.
The main part of the church sustained some roof damage, but the luminous windows survived mostly unscathed.
“The St. Thomas church bells are silent for the first time in a 106-year period,” the article stated.
The rectory, convent and two-story school also sustained significant damage.
The tornado touched down shortly after the Our Lady of Perpetual Help devotions on a Saturday evening.
Parishioners came to church the next morning to celebrate the Eucharist and praise God. Then they talked about what needed to be done.
Father Arthur Behrman, who was pastor at the time, is said to have told the parishioners “we need men, money and material to start rebuilding as rapidly as possible.”
As was their custom, parishioners came together with Fr. Behrman to restore their beloved St. Thomas the Apostle Church.
The next step for parishioners was to build a rectory, convent, and school, all still in use today.
Over the years, there were additions to the school to add more classrooms and a gymnasium.
The parish’s spirit of community was highlighted by Bishop McKnight during the celebration of the Eucharist for the sesquicentennial.
“A parish is not a church building, but primarily the people of its territory who are living stones that form a Temple of the Holy Spirit,” he said. “It is your activity as members of the parish, the raising of families, the education and moral formation of our youth.”
St. Thomas the Apostle School and the parish’s School of Religion are a testament to that.
The early settlers started the tradition of a Catholic school by constructing a one-room, log schoolhouse in 1874.
Members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) congregation staffed the school for a total of 74 years.
A young Sister DeLellis Brucker SSND came to teach in 1944 and inspired some of her young students to enter the religious life.
She left another interesting legacy. As money was scarce due to World War II, Sr. DeLellis showed students how to take brown paper from feed sacks to make paper mountains.
These were used as decorations with the Nativity crib in church at Christmas.
The students also brought mountains home to put under their Christmas trees.
The mountain tradition continues to this day to be a part of Christmas adornment in the church and in nearby homes.
Good set of pipes
Another legacy in St. Thomas church is the pipe organ, installed in 1897 in the loft of the church.
It was constructed by J.G. Pfeffer & Sons Company of St. Louis, a prominent organ builder.
The instrument made the journey to St. Thomas on a steam-powered paddleboat.
After decades of use, the original organ slipped into the background of the parish.
During the pastorate of Fr. Jeremy Secrist, a concerted effort was made to rehabilitate the organ.
An anonymous benefactor made a generous bequest specifically for that purpose.
Parishioners and the larger community gave additional money and the organ was restored to its earlier grandeur.
According to the sesquicentennial book, the “organ is one of those rare examples of 19th century organ building in the Midwest. Fewer than 50 are known to exist anywhere.”
The organ with its 450 pipes was relatively unscathed in the 1948 tornado.
Out on mission
Father Leonard Mukiibi, current administrator of St. Thomas parish, spoke in his homily at the sesquicentennial about “celebrating our history ... the strength and determination of the settlers to start a life in a new world.”
He asked parishioners to be missionaries in their homes and communities encouraging vocations, and “then go out into the world to be missionaries of the Word of God.”
St. Thomas parish fostered and nurtured 21 women religious vocations, including Sister Anne Boessen SSND, who lives in Wardsville.
Three priestly vocations include: Monsignor Bernard Boessen, Father Bernard Luebbering, and Monsignor Felix Sommerhauser, all deceased.
St. Thomas parish has a number of activities that promote a spirit of community.
The St. Ann’s Sewing Circle’s members donate hours of time and talent to quilting for the benefit of the parish.
The vibrant Knights of Columbus Council 2149 is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
A Catholic Youth Organization, an active 4-H Club and a number of athletic events for all ages keep the young people engaged in the parish.
Mrs. Lueckenhoff said “people see the St. Thomas parish as a center of mercy and charity,” highlighted by food drives, collections for Birthright, the Pregnancy Help Center, Vitae Foundation and others.
Parishioners talk about visiting those who are elderly, infirm and homebound, bringing comfort and support and offering prayers for them.
The legacy of the early immigrants and those who followed ensures that acts of kindness will continue for years to come in St. Thomas.
Mrs. Crane, a member of St. Thomas the Apostle parish, is a former associ