Saving St. Leo

Jan 23, 2014 by

Saving St. Leo

As you drive south on 170 Ave in Southwestern Kingman County in Southern Kansas, if you look to your southeast you will see it. The “it” I speak of is St. Leo Catholic Church. More than 100 years ago German immigrants moved to this spot on the High Plains in search of a good life and land of their own. By God’s grace, this is where I was born and raised. For the first 19 years of my life this was the only home that I ever knew. Being Catholic meant going to Mass at the beautiful church just across the road from where I grew up. It meant going to the Catholic school with the other local kids, and playing football or baseball with friends and cousins in the empty lot behind the church. Whether I wanted it to be or not, St. Leo is my home, and just two years ago I moved my wife and children to a farm on the south edge of this tiny town. I had never intended to return here. Who really plans to return to a dying town more than an hour from modern civilization?

I remember having the thought upon returning home during my college days that someday I would have to bring my children out here to show them where I grew up. I also imagined, considering the rapidly aging and declining population, that St. Leo, KS would one day make it into the now six volume set of books entitled: Ghost Towns of Kansas. In fact I knew of two such towns that had died with the advent of railroads within three miles of our little town. All that remains now are the cemeteries of these once bustling little towns. As I grew up I was a part of a generation of “lasts” in our small town. I played on the last tee-ball team that consisted solely of  youths from the vicinity of the town. In my later years, baseball teams would be centered in the larger town to our north nine miles. I was also one of the last classes in the St. Leo Catholic School. It closed my sixth grade year with a student body of only 23 students in K-8. The parishioners had made heroic sacrifices to keep the school open through the years, but there comes a point where the time and effort and money necessary for such a thing are just in too little supply. The historic “firsts” of which I was a part growing up, were ultimately historic “lasts” for our small town.

By the time I finished college, our small town had as many as fifty percent of its homes vacant. However, it must be considered that the houses total only thirteen. I began to realize that the little town in which I grew up, was quickly emptying. The Sunday Mass seldom numbered more than thirty or forty total congregants. The four local parishes were grouped into a cluster now covered by a single priest. For quite a while I imagined that my home was in its death throws. I believed that one day this area would just be another segment of a farmer’s monstrous wheat fields. Then, I made a decision that changed everything.

I had been writing about the Catholic Land Movement for several years as a  high school theology teacher. I had long dreamed of owning a little bit of earth in which to plant my roots. In another Distributist Review article I wrote of my journey from theology teacher to farmer. (See: http://distributistreview.com/mag/2011/11/from-teacher-to-farmer-why-i-went-back-to-the-land/) That move saw me take my family to Topeka, KS for a year of farming on land borrowed from family members. However, at the end of that year I took my family to visit my parents back home in St. Leo, and then I started to see the place in a different light. Christianity proclaims boldly that the death of a thing need not be its end, but in actuality just a beginning, or a resurrection into something greater. That summer, southern Kansas was in the midst of a historic drought. The grass crackled beneath my feet as I meandered through the town and saw the empty shells of houses that once were homes to families. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. What was in front of me was indeed the end, but it also had the potential of a new beginning. As I peaked in the barn of a now vacant small farm I could envision it again full of straw and a cow-calf pair. The old garden spot was now grown over with weeds, but I could imagine the rows of beans, tomatoes, and peppers that could one day grow there. Suddenly I saw potential where before I saw the end of all that I once knew. Now I just had to figure out how to convince my wife to move to the middle of nowhere.

Pioneer Family

When reading the Little House on the Prairie books you notice that often a place is settled by a first pioneer family. They must at times go it alone in order to begin civilization. I broached the topic of moving to St. Leo with Mary the week after our visit. Her immediate reaction was “no,” but in time she saw also the possibilities that I saw. We returned home at Thanksgiving the same year and decided to speak with my parents about the move. Naturally they were excited, and we started making inquiries about different empty homes. After a few doors closed, one completely unexpected one opened. At the south edge of town was a farmstead I had almost forgotten about. It is really on the edge of the town proper, and since it is on a dirt road I rarely traveled past it. Upon contacting the landlord, he was excited about the prospect of having a young couple inhabit the home in which he was raised. He had purchased and fixed up the home a few years before as a way of reconnecting with his roots. However, his home was hundreds of miles away in New Mexico, and his purpose for the home was diminishing. Only two months later we would find ourselves in this home in which we now live. It was now also that we found ourselves to be a pioneer family.

Many of the people in our area have a minimum of three decades of age on us. Many have four or five decades. At times we realized how lonesome the big plains can be to a family trying to repopulate the area. We wondered at times how Ma Ingalls felt as Pa drug her and the girls all over the unexplored West only to settle them miles from any other living person. Now that we were settled we began to have bigger dreams for this little town. It was then that we decided to invite others to join us. We were having enough success farming that we believed we could create a farming cooperative with another family and provide for both of our families.

In July of 2012, Casey and Amanda Truelove of Austin, Texas came for a couple of weeks to explore what farm life would be like. They were here in the second year of our historic drought, and at the end of their stay they decided that they would return one year later to stay. Thus began what has become a stream of young families interested in living out here and filling the shell of the old with something new. The Trueloves have been here for half a year now, and have purchase one of the empty homes a mere two hundred yards down the road from our farm. We expanded our operation to an additional ten acres owned by my father, and have continued to grow successfully here on the wind-swept plains. We are anticipating the move of another family to the town this summer, and there is a list of others who would like to be neighbors as well. Our difficulty will be the financial aspect of bringing other families here, as well as the acquisition of homes and land for their families. This is why we recently formed the “New Catholic Land Movement.” We needed an organizational structure in which families could be assisted in their transition to the land. The original Catholic Land Movement in Great Britain had sought just such a transition, however it had been many years since the dissolution of the original movement. We needed something new that could deal with the difficulties and dilemmas of modern times.

The St. Leo Project

As time progressed we began to realize the need for a structure or place to help families in the transition to the land. We dreamed of a large farm or a former church camp with the infrastructure present to begin an institute where families could get started homesteading and farming. However, as time progressed we saw that it would be hard to duplicate the opportunities present in our current area. I suppose it would be easy to say in imitation of the apostle: “Can anything good come from St. Leo?” However, as we have discussed St. Leo with other families they are ecstatic because they can see a real physical possibility for building community on the land without starting from scratch. Many a person has had the idea of a village of Catholic farmers or peasants, but most often they dream of building something new on a fresh piece of land. This is appealing, but also extremely unrealistic barring the assistance of some individually wealthy philanthropist. It would take much less monetary resources to move families into infrastructure that already exists than to start with nothing.

As time has passed we have developed the phrase, the St. Leo Project. This is the first of what we hope will be many such projects to build community on the land. St. Leo is my home, and it was natural for me to start here. However, it also has many ideal characteristics for a future community of Catholic farmers and homesteaders. In the general area of both St. Leo and the surrounding area there are numerous empty homes and farmsteads. There are also many homes occupied by elderly people without a clear heir. The people here have been very welcoming of our ideas because they know that when small towns around here start to empty, it is just a matter of time before they are gone. St. Leo also has an open Catholic Church with a pastor in residence. The Church maintains its high altar, albeit some of the nuns in the 70′s had a thing for pastel colors. That however could be fixed. It is my hope to one day see that high altar in use again. There is an adoration chapel in the now empty convent, and the convent could one day again house a religious order. The schoolhouse is empty and in good shape as well. The four classrooms could be used for a homeschool cooperative in the future as well. The infrastructure is present if we can gain the monetary means of filling this empty shell with something new. I’m certain that St. Leo is not unique in this aspect. Certainly rural areas across the country have been vastly depopulated over the past four decades, and time is essential if we are to prevent the remaining shell from being deconstructed.

Certainly not all who move here will be occupied full time with farming. Our CPA is hoping to move within the next year, and plans to homestead on the side to supplement his work on taxes. However, our business of farming has shown the immense possibilities of cooperative farming. We plan to use funds raised by the New Catholic Land Movement non-profit to assist in creating a cooperative where farmers can band together to sell their goods. Such cooperatives have been extremely successful for small-scale farmers, and it provides a way for beginning farmers to get started without the immense risk of starting their own business. This helps then to provide monetarily for families who would risk everything by moving to the land. The modern context of small farms provides a platform from which to sell good food locally that did not exist even a decade ago. You can see a bit more about our farm through the documentary done by Catholic News Service last year: Gospel of the Plow part 1 and Gospel of the Plow part 2.

We know the path to repopulating our little patch of the country will be a long one. We don’t hold any illusions about how many difficulties we will endure. We have already endured such even in just beginning this journey. However, if you can see the vision that we are trying to create then we hope you will consider supporting our endeavors. You can support the New Catholic Land Movement’s initiatives by and visiting: www.newcatholiclandmovement.org and pressing the donate button.  Or if you would like to discuss what we are trying to do on a broader scale then please send me an email at fordkevint@gmail.com. I can also be reached at 620-246-5217

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8 Comments

  1. Thanks be to God. I’m scared and excited for you. May God grant growth and unity.

  2. Surretha Uebel

    This is the kind of place that I had in my dreams many years ago when my children were young. They are now 19 and almost 22. My dream was of a Catholic farming community where the the Angelus bells rang from the church and everyone came, almost in walking distance, for daily Mass with the High Altar. I, being in my mid 50s, am much older than the young families of which you speak, but I still hold onto my dream. We have a small nine acre farm that we moved to just 6 years ago. We have chickens, ducks, and a small garden. We homeschooled our children through high school. They are both in college now and both want to homestead when they have families. May God bless you in your endeavors.

  3. Charles Mercer

    Kevin,

    I have been following your work for some time and have had a similar desire to simplicity and family for almost six years. I am in the Houston area but would love to catch up with you some time if you can spare 20 or 30 minutes. I believe we share a common friend in James Lewis whom I worked at a summer camp in Texas with. Please email me if you would be available over the phone and when is a good time to call. Thank you Kevin!

    In Christ,
    Charlie Mercer

  4. Aaron Izzard

    Hi Kevin,

    Have you considered writing to your bishop and asking his permission to contact good male religious orders to live in the empty convent? You could then contact orders to see if they are interested in the “St Leo Project”. If it takes off as you hope then there will potentially be many priestly/religious vocations amongst the families. An order would not only give continuity and permanence, but could really assist in the spiritual life of the parish. I’m not sure about your diocese, but almost all dioceses here in Australia are running short of priests. We lived in an area with small towns that sound similar to St Leo, we had a resident priest but when he failed his eye test for his licence, and so could no longer drive, he retired. It is highly unlikely that the parish will have another resident priest any time in the foreseeable future.

    God bless and good luck.

    Aaron

  5. Bob Major

    Yesterday, January 27, I was working on my cold frames (refining my system with old-new ideas from Eliot Coleman), next to my house built in 1920, in my town (Walsenburg in Huerfano County, southern Colorado, usually the poorest county). The three houses immediately adjacent to my garden area are abandoned, and most would say it’s looking pretty grim for us. But the angelus bells from my church, a mile away, told me it was time for lunch and time to say thanks. So I had the opportunity to take of my hat and give those thanks to my God for a wonderful morning. Yesterday I didn’t give a thought that I left one of the most affluent counties in Colorado (Boulder). If I’d stayed there, would I have four children? Would the job and the money made me happier than the angelus bells? Not yesterday, and I doubt today.

  6. James

    +JMJ+

    So many similar small towns dot the prairies of Western Canada where I live. Beautiful old churches. Towns just waiting for families to return. It’s tough for religious orders to focus on areas like these. There are so many. Which is the heartbreak in all of this…

    That said, I have Faith towns like St. Leo, and others in the region I live, will return to their glory. But Catholics must act. Time is short. The clock is ticking.

    Bob Major: Inspiring move. Inspiring post. I am thinking the same. Have been for years. But now things seem to be forcing us to make such a move. Albeit up here in the Great White North.

    Pax

    James

  7. Bridgett

    +JMJ

    Dear Kevin,

    We love what you are doing. We, too, feel the strong pull to return to the land and dream of all you have implied. We have been drawn to the Locust Grove/Hulbert, Oklahoma area because of the existing Benedicting Monastery (Clear Creek) and the Clear Creek Benedicting nuns (who wear full habit). The Catholic homeschooling community and the involvement for students with Institute in Excellence in Writing (IEW) is also another pull. We have not been able to move, and are still praying about this, as we wait for our home to sell here first. It seems, from conversations we have had with those who have already made this move to Clear Creek, that many of the Catholic homeschooling families are employed by IEW or they have jobs where they drive to the city. We are not certain if any of them are able to live off of their land. We are also very interested in the Latin Mass, which is the only mass that the Clear Creek monks celebrate. What is the current situation at St. Leo Church? We do wish that a monastery were there, as this would give families yet one more reason to move to your area.

    In Him,
    Bridgett

  8. May Jesus and Mary Bless all of your plans! The post and comments are so inspiring! We are at the end of a long, icy winter here in the Adirondacks. Our family is so grateful for the gift of living a simpler life, surrounded by the goodness of Holy Mother Church. What a joy it would be for us to hear Angelus Bells!

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