Ron Sack and Chase Becker planned a five-day tour of the southwest Panhandle, aiming to stop by as many cities as they could. However, unlike many tourists, their primary goal is to document history.
Sack is a writer and designer while Becker is the liturgy coordinator at Creighton University. Together, they call themselves the “Nebraska Church Guys.” They came to the Panhandle to study Catholic churches this week.
“Chase and I, we’re kind of a volunteer duo,” Sack said. “We’re setting out to record the history of Catholic architecture throughout the state. … We’re out to document that before its gone.”
The historians want to preserve that history for future generations to learn about.
Sack and Becker met at a postcard show and they realized they were both collecting images of Nebraskan Catholic buildings. They decided to collaborate on a project together; their goal is to write a 600-page book about the history, architecture and design of each Catholic location in the state. They mapped out locations to visit and started their journey in late 2020. Along the way, they examine journals, scrapbooks, photo albums and firsthand accounts of different churches’ histories.
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On Wednesday, Mary Temple was on hand to show the “Church Guys” around Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Bayard. She brought a collection of photos and historical documents with her, which had been compiled to celebrate the parish’s 100th anniversary in 2019. She told them all about her own family’s history with the church, as well as some of the architectural changes it has seen throughout the years like a new addition, which was built in 2001.
The historians aren’t just interested in existing structures. They’re hunting for former Catholic sites as well, including some which were torn down decades ago and of which only pictures survive.
“I thought it was kind of interesting,” Temple said. “They are trying to find all the churches that ever were, … They’ve got a lot of digging to do, I’d say.”
On Wednesday, the duo visited churches in Broadwater, Bayard and Bridgeport as well as a former church site in Angora. On Thursday, they plan to visit Alliance. On Friday, their goal is to tour Mitchell, Morrill, Minatare, Henry, Lyman and Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Scottsbluff. On Saturday they’ll travel to Kimball, Bushnell and Gering and finish off their Scottsbluff church tour with a trip to St. Agnes.
They will remain in Scottsbluff the next day, visiting locations that used to be Catholic institutions. These include the former St. Mary Catholic Hospital on Avenue B and the former St. Christopher Childcare Center, which is now ESU #13.
“It’s that history that people are starting to forget. … Scottsbluff has great history there. We’re excited to explore that, too,” Sack said.
Becker said the historians could focus on other denominations, but since both of them are Catholic, they are more knowledgeable about that denomination and have focused on what they know best. He said the awe-inspiring design of the Catholic architecture he saw growing up made him interested in learning more about it.
“What we’re collecting is hopefully the whole breadth of the architectural story of a place, from the time it was built to today,” Becker said. “…These buildings hold the stories of the people who built them and the people who continue to worship in them, and in a lot of ways they’re representative of the place and the people.”
Oftentimes, he said, the buildings exhibit the architectural styles of the ethnicities of their worshippers including those with Hispanic and Italian roots.
So far, the Nebraska Church Guys have visited around 120 parishes across one-third of the state’s counties. Nebraska has three Catholic diocese with cathedrals in Lincoln, Omaha and Grand Island. So far, they’ve kept their sights on the Grand Island diocese. Their next destination is Kearney and Buffalo County, though Becker estimated it will take around 3 to 5 years to visit every current and former Catholic building in the state.