Chalice was saved after church tornado 123 years ago

Rita Stoffel Johnson sits with Barb Urlaub of Amoré Antiques and a church chalice that will be returning to its original home… a church in Mascoutah, Illinois. Johnson’s family has been in possession of the chalice since her great great grandfather saved it from the church after a huge tornado in Mascoutah in 1896. Photo by Bill Vossler

On the afternoon of May 27, 1896 the small town of Mascoutah, Illinois, and its 2100 inhabitants were going about their business, including some in St. John Evangelical Protestant Church. Minutes later, a mile-wide F5 tornado roared through, in what Wikipedia calls “the third deadliest tornado ever in United States history,” leaving much of the town and the church in rubble. A total of 255 people were killed in the environs, including one little boy from town and several church members from the surrounding area.

Rita Stoffel Johnson’s great great grandfather Philip H. Pfeifer, Sr., a founding member of the church, raced over to the church to try to do what he could do. He saw the damage, and picked up a communion chalice from the rubble as a remembrance of what had once been. “He pretty much kept it as a souvenir,” says Rita, of Eden Prairie, Minnesota. “He passed it to his son Philip Jr., who passed it to his son Herbert, who passed it to my mother, Catherine Pfeiffer Stoffel.”

Ninety-year-old Marilyn Welch, a local historian and longtime member of St. John United Church of Christ, said the steeple remained intact, but the rest of the roof was gone and the church was damaged pretty badly.

The local historian said only a few items other than paper records and documents remained from that original church, “a large furniture piece, two chairs from each side of the altar, and maybe a lectern from that time period.”

She adds that even though the town was badly damaged, church members met in the local school until the church could be repaired.

She didn’t know the chalice had been saved.

This chalice, which was saved after the third-worst tornado in U.S. history tore the Mascoutah, Illinois, church up, will be returned to the church this summer. Photo by Bill Vossler

Rita said, “Ever since I was a child, our family had that chalice. As a kid I remember seeing it in my grandparents’ house, and it wasn’t used for anything. It was just in a cabinet with a glass front. I was too young to ask what it was. When my mother inherited the chalice, I knew what it was. I talked to my grandfather, and he imparted what he knew about it from his father. When my mother died, it went into my house. We just looked at it as a vessel that came from that first church, and needed to be preserved.”

She says she’s had it on display for years, and was very careful to make sure that nothing happened to it. “The chalice has been very very meaningful to me, but after I decided to move, I’ve been agonizing over what I should keep and what I shouldn’t. I worked with my grandfather in his bottling company so I had a tie with him, which was one reason I kept the chalice.”

After a few years Rita realized her children were not interested in keeping it. “So when I decided to move, I brought it into Amoré Antiques in Anoka to see if somebody might appreciate it beyond me.”

When Rita first came into Amoré Antiques, she asked Barb Urlaub of the store if she would be interested in pewter, and Barb said she wasn’t. Barb said, “‘what else do you have?’ When Rita said she had an old communion chalice, I perked up, and when she handed me the chalice, I asked her if she knew the story on it. When she told me the story, I just thought it was something special and sacred, and felt like it wasn’t something I wanted to sell here in the shop. I thought maybe someone in the church would be interested in it.”

The Evangelical Protestant Church of Mascoutah, Illinois, as it looked in 1863. Photo courtesy of Eugene Rossel.

Barb discovered the church was still in operation in Mascoutah, having just had its 175th anniversary, and now named St. John United Church of Christ, and contacted them. “Within minutes I got text message saying it would be wonderful to get it back, and they would get the information to the proper person.”

But a week passed without Barb hearing anything, so she thought they weren’t interested.

But then Marilyn Welch emailed. “Marilyn said, ‘This is a miracle, and it’s great that you want to give the chalice back to the church.’ So they were interested, and said they would put it in an archive room in the local museum. I was excited that they wanted it. Communion is a huge part of the Christian faith, and I didn’t want to see anything happen to this chalice, so I decided to donate it back to them.”

Marilyn said she was surprised to hear that they were going to get the chalice back. “And very very grateful. Rita and her family used to live across the street from the church, and her family going back several generations, all of her ancestors were very much involved with the church.”

Marilyn says their pastor, Hugh Fitz, is planning a special acknowledgement of the chalice and its return to St. John at a service after it arrives back home.  “He wants to place it in a more prominent spot in the church where all can see it. We have a nice ‘parlor’ with an antique walnut glass door cabinet where he would like to display it. We are so excited.”

At this point, Barb says, money isn’t the object. After 122 years, “The chalice just needs to go back home.”