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History-Sacred Heart-Farmer City

In The Beginning…

          The Catholic community and worship in the Farmer City area began in 1865 when Franciscans from St. Mary’s in Bloomington came by train on weekends to celebrate Mass here in the homes of Catholic families.  Eventually a small frame church was erected on William Street.  The first recorded Baptism was of James Christy in 1879.  In 1891 cemetery property was purchased.  Early family names were: Brennan, Cleary, Clifford, Condon, Dwyer, Gehagan, Howard, Horan, Kennedy, Maloney, Meara, Morrissey, Mullen, O’Malley, Quinlan, Tobins, Trenkle and Yeagle.

          In nearby Weldon, Illinois, Mass was also offered at the home of John Pearl, starting in 1897, and later around 1901 Fr. Michael Dooling built St. Michael Church in Weldon, which was a mission of Farmer City and was closed in 1942.  Farmer City is in DeWitt County which is in the Peoria Diocese; for a time we were a mission served by the pastors of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Gibson City.  The present location of the church on N. Plum Street was a point of debate back in 1899.  The parish had a large number of Irish who wanted the church built close to the railroad where many of them worked.  But others did not want the Church right along the tracks.  The Trenkle family donated several lots – the present site – which is providential in that now we are not next to the grain elevators along the tracks.

          There was also a debate about whether to build the church of wood or brick.  Many of the parishioners had been in favor of a frame building.  The bishop sent Fr. Cannon, pastor of Gibson City, to settle the matter with a vote.  He read the ballots, holding them up to his eyes alone, announcing ‘brick’ many more times than ‘wood.’  They wondered who were all these people who had voted for brick?  That was when they realized why Fr. Cannon had been called the bishop’s ‘big gun.’

          The parishioners raised $16,000 to build the brick Church whose cornerstone was laid in 1899 by the founding Bishop of the Peoria Diocese, Bishop John Lancaster Spaulding.  At the end of a millennium in 1999, our church building became 100 years old.  At the dedication by Bishop Spalding, there was a visiting bishop and several priests.  After the ceremony the dignitaries went out to the Trenkle farm for a dinner with the parishioners.  It had been a wet November, so the bishops had to borrow the farmer’s boots to walk through the mud to get to the house from the buggies. 

          In the early days everyone either walked to church or came in buggies, tethering the horses to hitching posts behind the church.  They would come early before Mass to exchange farm and weather news while warming up around the coal-burning furnace in the basement – which had a dirt floor back then.

          In 1901 Sacred Heart parish was linked with St. John parish in Bellflower, and had its first resident pastor, Fr. Michael Abbott.  Fr. William White was the first long-term pastor; he built the present rectory in 1904, and in 1944 bought two adjacent lots.  In 1958 Fr. Thomas A. Carmody added a suite of rooms – the pastor’s ‘apartment.’

          Fr. Faulstich organized the Cemetery Association in 1946 to care for and landscape the cemetery.  During the 1930’s and 40’s the parish sponsored chicken dinners with fresh food donated by parishioners.  These were usually held on Sundays in the yard of the Trenkle home.  In the 70’s we started pig roasts, with a raffle and prizes.  The pig was roasted by Caleb Wayne, Pete Schumacher, Vic Fehr, and Maurice Hurley – a descendant of the first pioneers in this area at Hurley’s Grove.


The Parishioners

          Often parish histories consist of a list of what the pastors did, but we here are blesses with a remembrance of the lives and deeds of some of the married couples and women of our parish.  Thanks to the memory of Mildred Clifford and Caroline Whitton, we can recite anecdotes about these persons – whose stories are typical of the unsung example of others – all of whose lives in this parish and in their families inspire us to imitate their faith, hope, and love.

          Among the parish founders were an immigrant couple from Germany: Caroline Yeagle and Anthony Trenkle, who married in America and settled on a farm south of town.  They were advised: “the first thing you do is get an English dictionary; you can’t do anything till you get that.”  Anthony died young, leaving widow Caroline to raise nine children herself.  She was very industrious, a good manager, and was able eventually to purchase several farms.  She was also very generous, donating the chalice and paten, and corporals.  Caroline herself stitched the red cross on the corporals: an act that reminds us we should unite our daily crosses to Christ’s redemptive sacrifice offered at Mass.

          The pastor in Caroline’s time was Fr. White, who complained humorously that she dressed up in a black silk dress for funerals at the Methodist Church, while coming to Mass wearing an ordinary dress with an apron.  He appreciated that her apron was really a sign of her readiness to serve and give, for it had two deep pockets: one with candy for every child she met, and the other with money she gave to those in need.  Caroline didn’t make a show of this; she simply practiced Jesus’ teaching on charity: do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.  But at her funeral many people revealed the charity she had shown to them.

          Caroline had a friend in parishioner, Catherine (Coffee) Clifford, who practiced midwifery; in her time Catherine delivered many of the children in Farmer City.  She and her husband had been orphaned during the Irish potato famine, and immigrated to America and eventually settled in Farmer City.

          Hanna Horan, another early member of the parish, married a non-Catholic fellow named Robert Nickell.  One Sunday morning she noticed that her husband had not harnessed the horse and buggy, for he had yet to appreciate that the Catholic requirement of Mass every Sunday fulfills the command ‘keep holy the Sabbath.’  Without nagging or rebuking him, this pregnant woman and her two toddlers, one in arms, quietly started walking the eight miles to Church.  Robert hitched up the horse and buggy, caught up with them and brought her to Church; he eventually converted.

          The parish recently laid to rest Ann Dwyer, who was a pious lady parishioners fondly called ‘Saint Ann.’  She was a cousin of Fr. Richard Mullen, who became a priest of the Peoria Diocese, and was raised till age ten in Farmer City, but later moved.  He recently retired from the pastorate of Holy Cross Church, Champaign.

          The parish produced religious vocations: Mary Yeagle who became Sr. Saint Virginia of the Servants of the Holy heart of Mary; Josephine Morrissey who became Sr. Marie James of the Sinsinawa Dominicans; Margaret Grady who became Sr. Mary Pauline of the Precious Blood Sisters.  Each summer Ursuline nuns came to teach CCD for a week.  Among them was Sr. Patricia Ryan, a sister of parishioners.

          Arthur and Alice Yeagle were early families of the Farmer City and Bellflower parishes.  Alice had great faith: she recited the noon Angelus prayer until she died at age 93.  One of theirs sons is Ambrose Yeagle who is still a reliable usher, along with other parishioners, Don Olson and Tom Maxwell.  Another of their sons was Allison: his sons John and Thomas recently remodeled the church.  With donations from both parishes, John recently remodeled the rectory, with his wife Deb as interior decorator.  Another longtime family goes back to Lucas and Rosa Duffner, who like many immigrants first stayed with the Trenkles until they learned English and moved to a farm.  Their daughter Bertha married Floyd Maxwell: one of their sons, Bill Maxwell, became a parish trustee and helper to many pastors.

          Another longtime trustee was Ray McCord.  Present parish trustees are Maxine Trenkle and Scott Whitehouse, who comprise the parish council along with Caleb Wayne (president), Kay Schumacher and Greg Taylor.  Our parish stationery and bulletin cover are printed by Ralph Kemper, the son of Ralph and Emma Kemper who ran a newspaper in Mansfield in the 1940’s.  Some of the Altar Mass servers: Peter & James Walsh, Kevin & Emma White, Bobby Althouse, Allison Riggs, Mike Harris, Bill Taylor, Chase Riddle, Curt Wayne, Erica & Elizabeth Halcomb, Sara, Melinda & Melissa Coit, Lindsay Walker, Jonathan Yeagle, Brandon Houser and Craig Hethke.

          We have a combined CCD program with St. John’s Bellflower taught on Sunday mornings by volunteer teachers Lisa Riggs, Debbie Wright, Loretta Power, Christy Strutner, Kay Schumacher, who is also coordinator, Heather Killian, Jane Halcomb, Andrew Killian, Corie White, Karen Smith, Caleb Wayne, Cindy Houser, and the pastor.  Substitute teachers are Don & Angie Becker, Lynne McConkey, Camille Munson, Lloyd Power, and Jim Strutner.

          At the present time daily Mass is regulary attended by a number of parishioners, including Ambrose and Eleanor Yeagle, Leota Howell, our parish secretary Kay Schumacher, Maxine Trenkle, Caroline Whitton, and her cousin Mildred Clifford.  Mildred and her sister, Mary Clifford Magee, who is in the Jackson Heights nursing home, have a lovely statue of Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom – which was given to their aunt Minnie Trenkle, daughter of the founding family, when she was 16 years old in 1891 by one of the Franciscan priests, Fr. Charles.  Minnie was the parish organist from the beginning, and was followed by her niece Mildred Clifford who also has been a sacristan caring for the altar linens and vestments.  Other musicians were Louise Primmer, Tim Weber, and presently Mrs. Kaye Coit.  Leota Howell takes care of the candles and vessels.  Altar and Rosary president is Katy Leonard; Florence Workman is the secretary-treasurer, and she also cleans the rectory and church.


The Sanctuary

          Sacred Heart Church is a handsome red brick structure with a rose window above the altar.  The organ was installed in 1930.  In the 1940’s Fr. Faulstich asked parishioner John J. Clifford to make candlesticks for the altar and for funerals.  Brass ones were too expensive during wartime, so John offered to make candlesticks out of walnut, as there were many walnut trees in this area then.  He practiced on his lathe making prototypes out of pine until he achieved a satisfactory pattern, and then produced six regular size and six large handsome solid walnut candlesticks which we still use along with the gothic candlesticks.  William Howard, a descendent of the founding families, donated the adoring angels who genuflect in prayer beside the Tabernacle to acknowledge that cherubim and seraphim angels continuously praise God before His heavenly throne and on earth in Christ’s Eucharistic Presence.

          The sanctuary of Sacred Heart Church was remodeled several times.  In the 1940’s under Fr. Faulstich a baldachino was built over the altar; this involved sealing up the rose window, and the two adoring angels were put in storage.  In the 1960’s Fr. Carmody had a walnut reredos put behind the altar in place of the canopy.  In the 1970’s after Vatican Council II the altar was turned for Mass facing the people.  In 1992 the church was completely redecorated.  Thomas and John Yeagle repainted the church, restored the ceiling trusses, and opened up the rose window.  The reredos was taken down and from its wood a new altar and pulpit were fashioned – also incorporating parts of the Communion rail.  Other recent additions to the parish buildings and grounds are an elevator in the church; landscaping around the Church and rectory, done by Gene Elliott and his son; a Marian garden planted by Cindy Houser and the high school students; a bell installed in the bell tower, which is rung before Masses and after funerals; restoration of the adoring angels, and an outdoor statue of the Sacred Heart. 


In Gratitude

          We are grateful to the committee that prepared and designed this history, especially Greg Taylor.  The parishioners have a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid to our faithful forebears who gave us life and handed on the Faith by word and example.  We are also grateful to the clergy and religious who served us, especially to a beloved pastor who strengthened our faith: Father Charles B. Motsett.  In 1934 he was ordained with another diocesan priest, Fr. Charles Clifford, son of John and Kate Trenkle Clifford.  We thank Fr. Motsett, our good shepherd in the image of Christ, who visited our homes and cared for our youth; he served Farmer City from 1974 till 1982, and is now retired in his 90’s as the oldest diocesan priest.  May God reward him and our forebears, whom we hope to see in heaven in the Communion of Saints.