Ron Sack and Chase Becker planned a five-day tour of the southwest Panhandle, with the goal of stopping in as many cities as possible. However, unlike many tourists, their primary focus is documenting history.
Sack is a writer and designer while Becker is a liturgy coordinator at Creighton University. Together they call themselves the “Nebraska Church Guys”. They came to the Panhandle to study the Catholic churches this week.
“Chase and I are kind of a volunteer duo,” Sack said. “We strive to record the history of Catholic architecture throughout the state…We want to document this before it is gone.”
Historians want to preserve this history for future generations.
Sack and Becker met at a postcard show and realized they both collected pictures of Catholic buildings in Nebraska. They decided to collaborate on a project together; their goal is to write a 600-page book on the history, architecture, and design of every Catholic site in the state. They mapped out places to visit and began their journey in late 2020. Along the way, they examine diaries, scrapbooks, photo albums, and first-hand accounts of the history of different churches.
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On Wednesday, Mary Temple was on hand to show the “Church Guys” around the Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart in Bayard. She brought with her a collection of historical photos and documents, which had been compiled to celebrate the parish’s 100th anniversary in 2019. She told them all about her own family’s history with the church, as well as about some of the architectural changes it has seen through the years such as a new addition which was built in 2001.
Historians are not only interested in existing structures. They are also looking for old Catholic sites, including some that were demolished decades ago and of which only photos have survived.
“I thought it was pretty interesting,” Temple said. “They’re trying to find every church that’s ever been…have a lot of work to do, I would say.”
On Wednesday, the duo visited churches in Broadwater, Bayard and Bridgeport as well as a former church site in Angora. On Thursday, they plan to visit Alliance. Their goal on Friday is to visit Mitchell, Morrill, Minatare, Henry, Lyman and Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Scottsbluff. On Saturday they will visit Kimball, Bushnell and Gering and conclude their visit to Scottsbluff Church with a trip to St. Agnes.
They will stay in Scottsbluff the next day, visiting places that were once Catholic institutions. These include the former St. Mary’s Catholic Hospital on Avenue B and the former St. Christopher’s Child Care Center, which is now ESU #13.
“It’s that story that people are starting to forget…Scottsbluff has a great story there. We’re excited to explore that too,” Sack said.
Becker said historians might focus on other faiths, but since they are both Catholic, they know that faith best and have focused on what they know best. He said the awe-inspiring conception of Catholic architecture he saw growing up inspired him to learn more.
“What we collect is hopefully the full breadth of a place’s architectural history, from when it was built until today,” Becker said. “…These buildings hold the stories of the people who built them and the people who continue to worship there, and in many ways they are representative of the place and the people.”
Often, he said, buildings feature the architectural styles of their worshipers’ ethnicities, including those with Hispanic and Italian roots.
So far, Nebraska church guys have visited about 120 parishes in one-third of the counties in the state. Nebraska has three Catholic dioceses with cathedrals in Lincoln, Omaha and Grand Island. So far, they have kept their sights on the Diocese of Grand Island. Their next destination is Kearney and Buffalo County, though Becker estimated it would take about 3–5 years to visit all of the current and former Catholic buildings in the state.