Friday, April 25, 2008

New Pews from an Old Friend

Most of the posts in this blog deal with the day-to-day changes to Holy Family Cathedral in the course of its restoration. Today, we will take a short look at the life of the priest who built our Cathedral.

Father John G. Heiring grew up in Davenport, Iowa, was ordained a priest, and found himself serving the Catholics in Indian Territory. Bishop Theophile Meerschaert assigned him to Holy Family Church in 1907. Fr. Heiring replaced two Belgian-born brothers who had built the original Holy Family church and school in 1899.

Almost immediately, Fr. Heiring began making plans to expand the original church which seated several dozen parishioners - and no more. The church was a typical wood frame building with a rectangular floor plan. Fr. Heiring and his parishioners tore down the rear wall, the wall where the altar stood. He built transepts and an apse, making the church a cruciform, a church built in the shape of a cross. He ordered new pews and stained glass windows to fill the additional space.

According to Father James White in his book Tulsa Catholics, Bishop Meerschaert traveled from Oklahoma City for the dedication of the newly expanded church. The bishop arrived but the new pews had not. To make matters worse, the windows had arrived, but all of them had broken in transit. The bishop dedicated the pew-less and window-less church.

In 1912, Father Heiring began planning to build the current Holy Family church at 8th & Boulder. That story will be retold later.

Bishop Meerschaert was pleased with Father Heiring's visionary planning and determination. The bishop asked him to found a church west of the Arkansas River. St. Catherine Church and School thrive to this day, named after Fr. Heiring's mother's patron saint. The bishop asked Father Heiring to build a hospital. St. John's Hospital is named at Fr. Heiring's patron.

During all this work, anyone would need a vacation. Fr. Heiring became friends with some German immigrants who settled in southeastern Oklahoma in the small town of Plunketville. They built St. Henry Catholic Church and a tiny house within walking distance of the church. The house was named "Heiring's Retreat."

Today, nearly 100 years later, the population of Plunketville, Oklahoma has dropped significantly. The little church of St. Henry is closed. Most former parishioners attend Mass in nearby Mena, Arkansas; however, most of them share fond memories of many Masses said, many sacraments celebrated, and many prayers offered.

Yesterday, Monsignor Gregory Gier, Deacon Millard Kizzia, Deacon Tom Gorman, and Mike Malcom traveled to Plunketville. We met Fr. Chet Archer, one of the wonderful Glenmary priests who staff the most rural parishes in our diocese. We also met the principal caretaker of the property.

We loaded the pews into a moving van so that we could bring them to Holy Family in Tulsa. It will take some time to refinish them. They will find their way into the Chapel of Peace in the basement of the Cathedral where they will replace the current dreadful chairs. Although it is sad to visit a closed church, there is comfort in knowing that the pews from that church will be knelt upon thirteen times a week at all the daily Masses at the Cathedral.

Father Heiring's greatest accomplishment may have been his "tri-spired gem," the cathedral in downtown Tulsa. We cannot forget the impact he had in Plunketville and to those Catholics who he prayed with and ministered to - even when he was on vacation.

1 comment:

Carole Berrigan said...

This is very interesting!! I wasn't aware of the church in Plunketville. My mother grew up in Mena Arkansas!! Next time i visit there I will need to pass through Plunketville!
Carole Berrigan