Closed parish’s picnic still draws a crowd

Members of the former St. Joseph Parish in Bauer continue a decades-long tradition of meeting for a picnic each summer. This year’s picnic, above, took place June 10. Friends, family and community members join in the festivities.

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

Though St. Joseph Parish in Bauer closed 30 years ago, former parishioners continue to meet on church grounds each summer for a picnic.

The tradition dates back generations. Jane Schneider got married in the Bauer church in 1973 and it was a treasured parish celebration even then. “It was one of those crazy things where you took five fried chickens and a half-gallon of potato salad and used I-don’t-know-how-many eggs to cook and make ice cream from scratch,” she recalled.

Much has changed since those days. A majority of parishioners are now members of Sacred Heart Parish in Melcher, five miles down the road. They no longer make ice cream by hand, which was time consuming and took away from the fun, Schneider said. As always, guests come to celebrate Mass, remember the good times and create new memories. The crowd of several-hundred at this year’s July 10 gathering was larger than any gathering she can remember.


Bauer church history

Four German-Catholic families founded Bauer in the mid-1800s, having left Indiana to find new homes in Iowa, according to a history of the former St. Joseph Parish published on its 100th anniversary in 1953.

After they erected a log chapel, Father Alexander Hattenberger of Ottumwa offered Mass as frequently as possible. Father John Baumann became the first resident pastor in 1873. He built a rectory and started work on the St. Joseph church building before his transfer to another assignment. Father J.F. Wieland completed the structure in 1876.

For many years, religious sisters taught at the parish school. “We think the picnic may have started with them, as they held dances every other weekend on a built-up dance floor made of wood,” Schneider said. “They did this to make money for the school. It might have branched out to the picnic.”

As with much of rural America, the Bauer population began to dwindle as younger families moved to more populated areas. St. Joseph Parish closed and became an oratory in 1993 due to a priest shortage in the Diocese of Davenport. A corporation of former parishioners owns and maintains the church grounds, buildings and cemetery. Members pay yearly dues and the summer picnic serves as a fundraiser for upkeep. The corporation rents out the hall and shelter for additional income.

Welcoming old and new friends

The picnic draws friends, local Catholics and community members besides the former parishioners and descendants. The pastor of the Melcher parish usually attends and celebrates Mass in the church, followed by a picnic, live music, children’s games, a bounce house and bingo. Guests enter raffles for quilts and other donated items.

Ten days into his new assignment as pastor of the Melcher parish, Father Dennis Hoffman celebrated this year’s Mass and participated in the festivities. “All the people were really friendly, it was truly a family event,” he said. “I was greeted with warm wishes and many people shared their family history and connections to St. Joseph in Bauer.”

The crowd grew as the evening went on, he observed. After the parking lot and grass lot filled up, guests parked along the street. “I met people from all over, not just from Iowa.”

Schneider, a co-organizer of this year’s picnic, said it was great to see everyone again, especially after a two-year absence because of COVID-19. “We’ve come a long way from churning our own ice cream,” she said.

“There are lots of people who gave of their time and resources to set up this parish picnic,” Father Hoffman said, and it paid off, based on the smiles and laughter he observed. “That’s what parish picnics are for — to have fun.”

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