By FRED PETRUCELLI
SPECIAL TO THE LOG CABIN
The bells of St. Boniface repose silently at the foot of the historic church, symbolic of the iconic history of the Catholic church in New Dixie.
The huge cast iron bells made by craftsmen of the community, a bucolic place that lies a short distance to the west of Conway along Highway 60, no longer peal resonate sounds. Today, they reside in a handsome bower that tells of their beginning in 1879 and their dissolution in a 1906 conflagration that destroyed the church and the home of its Catholic sisters.
The church has become an extraordinary phenomenon. France’s Chartres Cathedral it is not, yet in many ways the Romanesque church is warm and inspiring with its humanizing qualities of decoration. Its handsome altar came from Germany and remains a distinguishing edifice surviving fires and other tribulations that effected the church.
Travelers on a stretch of the roadway that runs through rural pastureland may stop to visit with Father Richard P. Davis, pastor of the church that for more than 100 years has been the gathering place for the parishioners of St. Boniface. Tucked away among trees, the aesthetic building with its bell tower that rises more than 95 feet in the air, beckons visitors to its comely presence.
"For years," Father Davis begins his litany of events of the old bells, "they were virtually lost under the front steps of the church where they reposed after the great fire. When the new church was built after the fire of 1906, the bells were not disturbed, and only when new steps were constructed later on were they found again. Parishioners had removed them to the farm of Conrad Gunther where they stayed for 50 years unattended. They had suffered great damage."
The original bells of the intimate Catholic church had tolled the messages of religious services, weddings, funerals and special days for the early pilgrims who had made their homes in a the lovely sweep of pasture land not unlike their rural homes in the old country, especially in Germany and Switzerland.
The newcomers fashioned a distinctive European-styled church that reached toward the sky and installed two huge, resonant bells in its bell tower, bells that sent rolling sounds into the far reaches of the New Dixie community.
And so it was for several years as families named Hempel, Nagle, Nutt, Rumple, Lipsmeyer, Shutten, Wumper, Siefter, Mueller, Oiles and Volpert, among others, listened to the church bells and their message of community. They listened for the bells that summoned them to Sunday mass and other church services of obligation and significance.
These were the families that had settled in the area about 1879, most coming by way of the Arkansas River, others by train. They struggled to subsist but they persevered on marginal farms. They were bereft of religious opportunities until the arrival of Father Aegidius Henneman who used a ferry at Conway to make his way to New Dixie.
He visited the small outpost every six to eight weeks offering religious services in private homes. It was he who was a force in the expansion of the community, appealing to the Choctaw Railroad, later on known as the Rock Island Lines, to suggest New Dixie as a home for their employees. In the years that followed more and more settlers became enthralled with the place and established homes.
When Father Henneman petitioned the railroad for help to build a church, the residents of New Dixie became the beneficiaries of 40 acres of land. The railroad also provided lumber for the construction of the church.
Life in the new land remained placid and stable until the year 1906, which stands as a momentous time for the community. It was then that the church building caught fire. The blaze raced through the sanctuary as mass was being said.
Parishioners have revealed that a Benedictine monk from Subiaco Abbey who traveled down the Arkansas River by boat to fill the community’s religious needs, refused to give in to the fire until he had completed the worship service. As he and other resolute souls who had stayed on, rushed from the building, a horrendous noise was heard. The flames had licked through the wooden bell tower devouring the steeple and loosening bolts holding the bells.
The immense weight of the bells caused them to crash though the ceiling and fall into the sanctuary, finally coming to rest in the cellar. The bells were damaged to a great extent and remained forgotten and unnoticed for years. The parishioners worshipped in private homes while a new church was being constructed in the same year of the disastrous fire.
The blaze had erupted in the Catholic sisters home which was connected to the church by a covered walkway. Both the church and the sisters’ home were completely destroyed.
Providentially, the handsome high altar in the church weathered the ruinous blaze, remaining majestically at the head of the church today.
Fire again proved disastrous in 1976 when lightening struck. The church hall was destroyed. Almost immediately plans to rebuild developed and a new hall measuring 60 feet by 120 feet with a cost of $60,000 came into being. Parishioners were responsible for doing most of the work of rebuilding. The new facility was dedicated in 1977.
The story of the original church bells came to the fore in 2006 when Ileen Gunther and other church members among its 130 families readied plans for a centennial celebration. Mrs. Gunther who works as church secretary talks haltingly while discussing the bells.
"If we hadn’t replaced the steps at the front of the church, the bells might still be lost," she said. "But now they are displayed in a beautiful shelter for all to see."
Mrs. Gunther remembers vividly the events that brought the bells to the pig farm of her brother-in-law Conrad Gunther and the difficulties encountered by the men of the church to connect pieces of the shattered bells. When the centennial time arrived, the bells were made ready, not to resurrect their brilliant tonal quality but to give them a place of respect.