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St. Michael's interior
Photos by Tom Parker

Still listening for the bell – preservation efforts underway for St. Michael’s Church

By Tom Parker

Kimeo signIt’s hard to believe there was ever a town here. All that remains of Kimeo, nine miles southwest of Greenleaf, are a few empty houses devolving back into the Kansas soil, a bullet-scarred sign welcoming visitors to a town with a “rising” population, a tree-shaded cemetery and a magnificent limestone church.

But a century ago 100 children led Bishop J.L. Cunningham from the pastoral residence to the southwest corner of the church—named for St. Michael, whose image graces the stained glass window in the choir loft—where the bishop blessed the cornerstone before it was wrestled into place. The Very Reverend J. Maher told the assembled crowd that the church would stand not only as an architectural ornament to the country but it would also be a lasting monument to the noble generosity and self-sacrificing zeal of the people. “It will be a living, eloquent witness to their children and their children’s children,” he said.

St. Michael's in construction

Those children, and their children, are now taking measures to preserve the old church against the ravages of time. Though the building is seldom used now except for an occasional wedding or funeral, the Kimeo community, far-flung though it might be, has not forgotten the importance of the church in their communal family. “It was the backbone of the community,” says Duane Klozenbucher of Greenleaf. “And not just for the Catholics, but for everybody.”

Not that Kimeo was ever a thriving town. At its peak, there were only six houses in the town proper, according to Duane. There was a general store, a blacksmith’s shop, a pharmacy and a post office. Most were relocated a half-mile west when St. Michael’s was erected. The area around the town was densely populated, however. Within a half-mile there were 75 Catholics, Duane says.

Depopulation began in the early 1900s, with the advent of WWI, which took away many of its young men. During the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl years, the population began hemorrhaging in a mass exodus to the cities. The coup d’etat came with WWII, when plants producing war material lured away much of the community, and its young people, having served abroad, resettled elsewhere.

The effect on St. Michael’s was disastrous. The congregation dwindled even as the numbers of priests in rural areas collapsed. Dozens of rural churches were closed or placed on inactive status. For all practical purposes, St. Michael’s Church was past the point of salvage. It was an anachronism, something from another time.

The Kimeo community, by then scattered throughout Washington County and beyond, refused to accept defeat. Nor did they forget that the church represented their heritage as well as their personal histories.

St. Michael's exterior

In January 2004, former congregants formed St. Michael’s of Kimeo, Inc. The process of incorporating the nonprofit organization was anything but fast. Nine months and a thousand dollars later, they had their 501(c)3 status. Then they started searching for a contractor who could give them an estimate of what was needed to renovate the church, which was by now falling into a state of disrepair.

That man was Roger Schultz, owner of Schultz Construction of Manhattan. He well remembered the church, having more than once fallen asleep beside his mother on the wooden pews. At the time he was, he said, about “this long”—holding his hands about four feet apart—but he counted himself among the community. “I have fond memories of that church,” he said.

St. Michael's stairwayAfter months of scouring the church inside and out, he presented his findings to the organization  in the rectory of Sacred Heart Parish in Greenleaf. Twelve people attended.

Schultz’s estimate was broken down into nine phases, ranked in the importance of critical need.

The first phase centered on the windows of the church, many of them stained glass; the second phase involved the steeples and the bell tower, which rises 75 feet from the front steps. Nearly every window frame had sustained rot damage, he said, and parts of the bell tower were structurally unsound. The walls, though in good shape, needed some tuck pointing and should be cleaned of an algae coating that traps moisture, making them more susceptible to frost heaving. Other areas of focus were the fascia, guttering and downspouts, stoops and entrances, exterior doors, a sag in the roof at the southeast front corner and concrete sidewalks and steps.

The floor, he said, looked as good as the day it was built.

Each phase could be done separately, he said, though combining several would lessen the cost of renovation. Without add-ons such as upgrades to a proposed quarter-inch glass sheet placed over the stained glass windows, the total cost for the project would run just shy of $200,000.

“It sounds like a lot of money,” he said at the time. “But any more, it’s really not that much.”

“Where we’re at, asking people for a hundred dollars is hard,” Pat Klozenbucher, Duane’s wife, told him. “They just don’t have it.”

St. Michael's stained glass

Several phases could be scaled back, Schultz said, depending on how they want the finished church to look. The estimate called for restoring the church to its original condition—something the members felt was unnecessary.

“It’s a hundred years old,” Pat said. “Why should it look new?”

Raising the money needed would be difficult, the members expressed, and would only come through generous donations. However, once word got out on the proposed project donations began trickling in. And in, until most of the needed funds were secured. Schultz began working on the church.

Since that time there have been some successes and some setbacks, primary being Schultz’s death. Before his demise he passed the task to his son, who vowed to continue the work. His son, Duane, added, however, that his father was one of those old-school craftsmen who could—and did—learn from watching others, and who could do anything.

One of the most critical concerns was protecting the stained glass windows. They’re now layered behind quarter-inch safety glass and the frames repaired. Another improvement was replacing the heavy wooden entrance door with a lighter fiberglass model. “It was so heavy kids couldn’t open it, so when they had to run out to the outhouse an adult had to open the door for them,” Duane says.

The church never had indoor plumbing, nor is that on the list of repairs. Because the church is used so seldom, restroom facilities are primitive, to say the least. Not long ago, Duane says, a big wedding was performed at the church, with a reception on the grounds. A big three-pole tent was erected in the shade of the Ponderosa pines and fancy portable toilets brought in, the kind with running water. “It was impressive,” Duane says. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The organization is now beginning a new fundraising drive to further the restoration work. It is, Pat says, an ongoing project, but one undertaken by the heart as well as the pocketbook.

On April 5, 1906, a memo in the Greenleaf Sentinel read “Listen for the bell to ring. St. Michael’s Church is nearing completion.” That bell has pealed over the countryside for generations. With luck, and with enough donors, the bell will continue to ring, a lasting monument to the noble generosity and self-sacrificing zeal of a people.

For more information on the Kimeo restoration project, contact Pat or Duane Klozenbucher, 785-747-2889. Donations can be sent to St. Michaels’s of Kimeo, Inc., 366 Wagon Train Rd., Greenleaf, KS 66943.

 

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Last Updated July 1, 2010
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