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Saving a Czech tradition

Churchgoers worked to preserve building, heritage

By Patricia Buschette

Over a five-year period, years ago, parishioners of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Bechyn were warned their beloved church would be closed.

“The New Ulm Diocese prepared us, talking about it at every council meeting,” explained Marcie Dworshak of rural Renville.

One of the dancing groups poses for a photo after performing at the annual Czech Heritage Festival in Bechyn. The church, the grounds and the festival were saved by a group of churchgoers that did not want to see the traditions and the heritage of the church go away. The volunteers formed St. Mary’s Preservation Association of Bechyn and the church and festival remained. Photo by Christine Neff Kojetin.

Marcie and her husband, John, and other parishioners of the historic church located in Henryville Township, Renville County, claim a shared heritage. Marcie’s ancestors donated land for the church and John’s great-grandfather Wencel Dworshak was the first to be buried in the church cemetery.

The small country village, home of St. Mary’s, was named after Bechyne, Bohemia the home of their ancestors who immigrated to America. It was a community and a church steeped in Czech tradition.

Then on a regular Sunday morning, Father Wojtowicz announced the demolition of the building that had been the heart of Czech heritage ever since its construction in 1915.

“That was the worst. That’s when we started to dig in,” said Marcie. “We wanted to keep our Czech heritage. How do you keep the heritage if you don’t have a church?”

Enthusiastic members gathered to develop a plan.

The final Mass of St. Mary’s in Bechyn was celebrated June 28, 1992. Marcie remembers that Bishop Lucker announced at the last Mass, “This is no longer a church. It is a building.”

A core group had began discussing the challenge of saving the church’s heritage. They needed to raise funds to maintain the property. The answer was clear. They would honor their heritage and carry on their love of Bohemian traditions with an annual celebration.

They spoke to Father Wojtowicz. Their plans were discouraged, and they were told they should wait a year.

“No,” Marcie exclaimed, “If we do, then everybody will forget about it. We want to do it in August.” The plan was reluctantly agreed to.

“Getting ready was a challenge,” Marcie remembered. They knew they would serve authentic Czech food including polish sausage, sauerkraut and mashed potatoes.

There should be ethnic dance, they thought. In May the Dworshaks attended the Festival of Nations in St Paul and visited the Czech booth. “We talked to the dancers and asked if they would come to Bechyn and they declined,” John said. “They said ‘We are professional dancers; we don’t go out on the street . . . We have special shoes and we usually have a dance floor.’ I said, ‘We will build you a dance floor,’ “We bought plywood for a dance floor, put it together, sanded and varnished it in my shop,” Gary Wertish explained. The dance floor was only the beginning as a shelter was constructed.

The St. Paul dancers said it was one of the best floors they ever danced on,” John said. They taught our kids how to dance, the first of the many years of dancing performances.

On June 16, 1992, Jeannie Wertish and Marcie drove to Willmar to purchase fabric for dance costumes when a tornado hit. The tornado was close when Jeanne arrived home. “I looked out to see bins rolling in the storm,” Jeanne remembered.

When they came out of the basement, they saw that a branch had fallen on the roof and had come through the ceiling. Water was dripping on Jeanne’s sewing supplies on the table.

In the midst of storm cleanup, efforts continued.

August 23, 1992 dawned oppressively hot with temperatures in the 80s. The committee wasn’t certain what to expect, and had no idea of the challenges that would confront them. Crowds descended on St. Mary’s, as they hurried to prepare the meal.

A neighbor had injected the nearby field with manure, and flies descended on the site. “We were invaded,” the Dworshaks ruefully remembered. Strong winds blew the canvas off a shelter built for the dancers.

The day, however, was a success. Many attended the Mass celebrated by Father Michael O’Connor. He and other priests supported us, the Dworshaks remembered.

“We didn’t think people would come again, but next year they came,” John said.

Music is an integral part of Czech culture and the festival and is a centerpiece of the event each year.

Dancers have been part of the event since the first Czech Fest. The first dresses made with fabric purchased locally have been replaced with dresses designed from fabric imported from Moravia, from the area that was the home of Bechyn’s first settlers. Jeanne Wertish has headed up the training and practice for dancers.

Good crowds support the event each year, which is run by a dedicated group of volunteers, some of whom helped save the building and traditions at St. Mary’s. Contributed photo

A challenge that remained, was to gain ownership of the building that had been the heart of Czech culture and worship. The process was difficult as proposals were suggested and rejected. The Preservation Committee’s attorney met with the Diocesan attorney. Coincidence played a role in the negotiations, as the two attorneys were friends. After unproductive discussions, one said to the other, “Let’s get this Bechyn thing settled!”

In the spring of 2004, the Diocese of New Ulm agreed to sell the church, and on March 16, 2006 Articles of Incorporation for St. Mary’s Preservation Association of Bechyn were filed with the Secretary of State.

In the years of its existence, many of the attractions have remained. The music and ethnic dances are a highlight, and the polka Mass with music provided by a polka band is well attended with overflow in tent.

In addition to the dinner with the traditional meal, there is ample food available on the grounds including traditional kolaches, potato dumplings, polish sausage, and more.

There also activities for the kids. They love the caterpillar, an 11-car barrel train that transports them around the grounds of the festival. Designed and driven by Gene Kohout, this barrel train is a tradition.” It was about 14 years ago during the winter months that I built the caterpillar,” Gene said. “I used barrels donated by Marty Malecek, used for food grade peroxide, safe for kids. Danube Upholstery made the seat backs and Pat Schmoll created the metal components. “Kids love to ride it,” Gene said.

In the over 30 years of its existence, the committee has accomplished much. The first project was to paint the exterior of the church. Among many other improvements, they refinished church pews, replastered the halls of basement, re-leaded the stained glass windows, installed tile drainage system, installed reverse osmosis water system, installed sewer storage system, shingled the roof with steel, done extensive tiling around church perimeter, and installed new furnaces.

A visitor to the site is certain to be impressed by the garden-like setting. Flower gardens dot the landscape, a project undertaken by volunteers.

The event requires approximately 100 volunteers for site cleanup, parking, meal service, etc. Many come to hear the music, others come for the food, all come for the fun.

“The 2023 Czech Fest was unique.” explained Tim Kojetin, a member of the Preservation Committee. “This year Bechyn’s sister city Bechyne of the Czech Republic celebrated 700 years of its founding. The Městské Muzeum in the Czech Republic created 10 panels that illustrate the 700 year history of Bechyne. Arrangements were made for copies that were on display at St. Mary’s for the festival. Panel No. 4 acknowledges the settlers who founded St. Mary’s,” he said.

The effort is managed by the preservation committee. New members are added, and while there are new ideas, traditional culture is maintained.

While there are always challenges, St. Mary’s Preservation Committee is familiar with adversity, and after 32 years of experience, this seasoned group is as capable, and just as determined as ever.

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