Stories from intrepid reporters attending the Illinois Press Foundation Journalism Workshop at Eastern Illinois University
(Video by Mia Mastandrea)
By Katlyn Campbell
The St. Francis of Assisi church means everything to native Cindy Vahling.
Vahling, who grew up in Teutopolis her whole life, said that early settlers came here for “the faith, they came here to have freedom.”
As a highschooler, Vahling was the second person hired at the parish. She worked as a doorkeeper, bookkeeper, receptionist, and later a teacher of religion. You name it, Vahling has done it. The only time Vahling left was to study at college.
Ask most anyone in this little town and everyone will tell you just how much Teutopolis revolves around the church: “the church was here first, everything else grew out of it,” said Vahling.
Upon entering St. Francis of Assisi church, the first thing eyes will wander to is the neo-gothic styled stained glass windows enclosing the church. The windows were remodeled in the early 1900s as a part of the Franciscan’s goal of remodeling the church.
“The windows were designed to tell the story of the life of St. Francis,“ said Vahling. “Years ago when people didn’t all know how to read one of the main modes of catechesis was art in the church: so, the stained glass windows are not just beautiful but they teach about our faith.”
She has raised all of her children in this faith and continues to teach others the religion. This year she’ll be teaching her son Isaac in his fourth grade religion class. In her spare time Vahling also remains engaged in her parish by helping organize a prayer group that meets once a month.
When asked what exactly the church meant to her Vahling said, “Everything” before laughing and continuing, “I never really thought about that.”
For Vahling going to church is something that she naturally does, whether it’s to simply pray after her son’s guitar lesson or to attend mass on Saturday and Sundays.
To the people of Teutopolis the church isn’t just a grand building in the center of the city. It’s a meeting place for over 90 percent of the people in Teutopolis that practice Catholicism.
It’s typical to have the church packed on Saturday and Sunday to the point where some people can’t even sit. Everyone sits shoulder to shoulder.
Father John Eaton, who has remained the priest of St Francis of Assisi for two years, saidhe came from Nashville, Tenn., where his parish was mostly of African American decent.
“My parish there was largely African and African American, but here mostly everybody is white. There, people were doctors and law professors and teachers. Here a lot of people are farmers and manual laborers of various kinds and when I went back to Nashville to visit, one of the main differences you see is when people come to communion all you do is look at their hands: in Nashville everybody’s got doctor and nurses hands: everybody here has calluses”.
The church in Teutopolis is deeply imbedded in its village, and Father Eaton plans to stay as long as his predecessor, Father Austin Alberts, who stayed for 12 years.
”One of the delights for me is to see how many young couples are here with their kids. We get a lot of young families more than any other parish I’ve ever been connected with,” said Father Eaton.
Although Father Eaton has only been here for two years he’s determined to get to know everybody in his parish before his religious superiors tell him it’s time to leave. There are 1,200 families in the parish, and on any given Sunday somewhere upward of 800 people attend mass.
All those families, but Father Eaton remains persistent and continues to study the names and faces of the parish directory: in hopes of knowing everyone so he can greet them at the doors of St. Francis of Assisi when they come to pray.
Teutopolis is a town where “everybody knows everybody,” states Father Eaton.
Unlike big cities: Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, everyone here appears more than willing to share their stories with anyone that walks through their town.
Whether it’s to tell you about their ornate stained glass windows in their church, or to tell you about the upcoming Parish Picnic held in the school next to the church: the people of Teutopolis understand quite well that their town revolves around the church and vice versa: the church couldn’t exist without it’s passel of active catholic believers.