Immaculate Conception in Old Monroe still has tight-knit, family atmosphere 150 years later

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

If you want to know the history of a country parish, just look for the stained-glass windows.

In them, you'll likely find the surnames of the earliest parishioners inscribed on the bottom of those windows. At Immaculate Conception in Old Monroe, the cognomens on the windows are plentiful — Burkemper, Gnade, Heitman, Kaimann, Prinster and Wilhelm, to name a few. And to boot, those names are still very much alive at the Lincoln County parish, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary next month.

At grandparents' day in September at Immaculate Conception School, evidence of the family-like atmosphere was easy to find. The church had standing-room-only for an afternoon prayer service, followed by ice cream floats and skits in the school gymnasium.

To hear Charles Wehde tell it, the parish community is just as friendly and tight-knit as he remembers from his childhood days. At 84 years old, he is among the oldest parishioners. Wehde, a longtime farmer, attended Immaculate Conception school from the first grade on (kindergarten wasn't offered back then), taught by the Franciscan Sisters of Oldenburg.

"I was scared," he said with a grin, recalling those first days of school. "But the friends I made here were the best." At 16, he met his wife, Anita, at a dance in St. Paul, several miles south of Old Monroe off of what's now Highway 79 in nearby St. Charles County. The Wehde's now have 14 grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the school.

Shortly after the Civil War, a small village of primarily German, Catholic farmers had begged a visiting priest, Father Gerhard, to stay, promising him land for a church. A monastery was built under the patronage of the Immaculate Conception. That first building was part chapel, part school, with the rest dedicated to the monastery. The church was a 30-foot by 60-foot building made of oak beams cut from area farms. The congregation collected $600 for a church bell from Stuckstede Bell Foundry in St. Louis and the parish was dedicated on Dec. 15, 1867.

Fast forward to today — the parish has more than 600 registered members, and the school has 201 students in preschool through eighth grade. Immaculate Conception added a preschool this year, thanks to a new 4,500-square foot addition to the school building. Father Rich Rath noted that the funding for the addition came from a longtime parishioner who donated it to the parish after his death.

"That's how generous people are here," said Father Rath, who came to the parish in 2013. It's also not uncommon to find folks dedicating their time volunteering at the parish and school or providing in-kind services to help with its upkeep.

Such was the case with Christina Gnade and Michele Molitor, two young moms who have children at Immaculate Conception. The two families live next door to one another, just down the road from the church on Maryknoll Drive.

Molitor, who grew up in the St. Peters area, is a relative newcomer, joining the parish about 14 years ago around the time she married her husband, Mark. "It's awesome. Everybody wants to help everybody," said the mother of three. "When I first started coaching (sports) here, my car broke down. And they're like, 'Oh I'll take you to your house.' If you have any kind of problem, people are there in a second to help you. There's an amazing sense of community."

Christina Gnade married into a family that goes back several generations at the parish. "Yeah, my name's on one of the windows in church," joked the mother of three. "The older founding families are all in there. Burkempers are in there, too — my husband's grandma was a Burkemper also. My husband and I live in his grandpa's house. And my in-laws live on Maryknoll too. It's a tight-knit community We love it here." 

Sesquicentennial celebration

WHEN: 10 a.m. Mass with Archbishop Robert J. Carlson on Sunday, Oct. 8

WHERE: Immaculate Conception, 110 Maryknoll Road in Old Monroe 

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