German Games at St. John the Baptist ‘Gildehaus’ Parish showcase heritage and chivalry

The hills were alive with the sound of music, yodeling and cheering as St. John the Baptist "Gildehaus" Parish in Villa Ridge celebrated its second annual German Games June 23.

The games marked the vigil of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist and showcased the area's deep German roots. Dozens of parish volunteers prepared and staffed the event, and a large crowd of spectators gathered on the hill overlooking the parish's baseball field.

The games — which included a root beer stein race, keg roll, tire flip, archery, arm wrestling and tug-of-war — "get everybody together and get everyone in one spot, and get people back to the Church," said parishioner Andrew Patke.

Pastor Father Timothy Foy has organized the event two years in a row. He came up with the idea last year, inspired in part by similar cultural events broadcast on TV. Both years drew competitors from the surrounding area as well as the parish. Eight teams participated this year, up from seven in 2017.

Teams were all-male and consisted of five members each.

"A lot of men sort of find their manhood, or their masculinity, or they reaffirm that, through doing something that's rigorous," Father Foy said.

"There's just something about camaraderie that men get when they're working together and just being themselves."

However, the focus of the day wasn't strictly on the men. The event's prizes, which included Bath & Body Works products and horseback outings for two, were geared not to the winners, but their beloved. Father Foy described the day as "chivalry-focused."

The prizes are "for somebody else, to move you outside of yourself," he said.

The program began with 8 a.m. Mass, at which Father Foy said in the homily he hoped would provide "a spiritual foundation for today's events." And Father Foy wasn't just organizer, but a participant as well. While most teams wore T-shirts and athletic shorts, Father Foy's crew couldn't be missed in their long socks, lederhosen and Tyrolean hats.

Events began with a 5K as 40 competitors raced through the surrounding township. The run was the only event open to anyone, though each team was required to have at least one member racing.

After runners returned, the rest of the contests kicked off on the parish baseball field. Each challenge was conducted as a tournament. Five of the events were individual competitions, allowing each team member to have his own contest.

"Everybody has something that they're doing that your whole team is pulling for you," Father Foy said. "You will matter to your team."

The first team event was tug-of-war. As groups were eliminated, the final round came down to what some saw as a battle of divine proportions as Father Foy's lederhosen-clad team came face-to-face with Father Alexander Nord, associate pastor of Immaculate Conception in Dardenne Prairie, and his teammates. Father Nord's crew emerged victorious.

The climactic challenge was the "German Ninja Warrior," which Father Foy called an "ancient tradition" dating to the inaugural games in 2017. Contestants went one at a time along an obstacle course based on the hit TV show "American Ninja Warrior." Constructed by parishioners Tom Gustafson and Mike Haley, the course included a climbing wall, balance beam and army crawl. A rope swing constituted an addition to last year's course, which was built at Gustafson's house in the week leading up to the games.

Father Foy described the warrior course as "an inspiring thing that might get guys to do something kind of tough."

Father Nord, panting while fresh off the obstacle course, noted that the German Games parallel older practices in the Church.

"It's nice to start to recover old cultural expressions of Catholicism, but also to build new ones and just have fun with it," he said. "In the past, for parishes named after a saint or some other feast day, they would make a big deal about their patron day. This is definitely something akin to what would have been experienced throughout the Church throughout the centuries."

"Obviously a little more modern, with something like a ninja course," he added with a laugh.

The games continued after the warrior course as candidates recuperated with sausage- and beer-tasting contests. The final standing of the teams was announced at 7:30. Celebrations continued as a bonfire burned late into the night.

Andrew Patke's team won the day, placing first in the 5K, obstacle course and overall. He said that the event "really brings the parish together" and emphasized the opportunity to welcome new faces.

"Just sit next to whoever, and talk to them and get to know them," he said. He described the larger parish community as "basically just family."

Parishioner Joe Tobben also emphasized the community exhibited by the games.

"It gets people together," he said. Tobben helped out by grilling dishes of a variety of ethnic origins, from German Weisswurst and Italian sausages to jalapeño bratwursts and burgers. He noted that the "tight-knit community" frequently sees considerable volunteer numbers for large-scale parish events.

Parishioner John Busch agreed.

If you "get two or three more people to come to church just because of this, you're gaining," he said. 

Brief history of St. John the Baptist 'Gildehaus'

St. John the Baptist, Gildehaus is named for the Gildehaus family, early settlers in the area who donated 30 acres of land to be used for the church. The parish was founded as a Jesuit mission in 1839 under Bishop DuBourg before being transferred to the diocese in 1858. The current church building was constructed in 1863.

The parish consists both of multi-generation families and newer members, as evidenced by the way parishioners speak of the place as well as by successions of headstones in the churchyard cemetery. 

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