St. Boniface Catholic Church
City: New Dixie, County: Perry
Location: Off Highway 69
1906 Carpenter Gothic-style church
Listed in Arkansas Register of Historic Places on 6/5/96
St. Boniface Catholic Church is locally significant under Criterion A because of its historic role as the leading, and now only, local institution of New Dixie that unifies and defines this historic German-American township.
Perry County suffered a great loss of its population during the Civil War. This was not due to major battles, but rather to gangs of marauders and other lawlessness that was allowed to exist in the country during the war. With the end of reconstruction, life returned to normal, except that many of its residents had either died or fled.
On the state level, Arkansas experienced an acute labor shortage. This was primarily due to its growth with the arrival of the railroads, but the need to replace the slaves who had done so much of the manual labor prior to the Civil War, also contributed to the situation. In response, the state created the Office of the Commissioner of State Lands to promote settlement. Other incentives were created in the legislature while new local civic organizations were founded to promote Arkansas. At the same time, Arkansas’ newspapers sang the praises of the state and of the possibilities awaiting immigrants to Arkansas.
The most effective catalyst for immigration to Arkansas, however, was the arrival of the railroad. The railroads needed to settle workers and their families, but also the railroads wanted to populate the areas around their railroads with farmers in order to boost the volume of products freighted on their lines. It was through these influences that Perry County attracted a wave of new settlers (Perry County had been heretofore sparsely populated).
Although there was settlement in Perry County dating to the 1840s, some twenty-five families of mostly German descent moved to the area surrounding New Dixie in 1879 and 1880. The Vicar General of Bishop Edward Fitzgerald, a man by the name of Father Hennemann, soon visited the settlement and decided to found a parish here. Father Hennemann soon arranged for a pastor to be sent for the small parish. He, also knowing that his parishioners were poor, spoke with the Choctaw, Oklahoma, and Gulf Railroad. Though he tried unsuccessfully to arrange for the railroad to build the community a church, he did convince them to help settle more immigrants to the area. The first pastor that Father Hennemann had arranged for the parish was a Benedictine monk by the name of Father Felix Rumph.
During the next two decades, the community of New Dixie grew with the addition of new settlers. By 1900, it could boast of a family of Irish immigrants and several Swiss families. However, it was still primarily a German community. The Swiss families were drawn together with the German families because of shared languages. The Irish were accepted because of their shared religious beliefs.
During these years, a succession of Benedictine monks acted as pastors for the young parish. These monks served on a rotating schedule between the different catholic communities up and down the Arkansas River basin between Little Rock and Fort Smith. In 1883, Father Matthew Seattlele supervised the construction of a personage and convent for nuns who were to become teachers for the community.
In 1901, Father Matthew Seattele built the first church, St. Boniface, for this community after the Choctaw, Oklahoma, and Gulf Railroad, now called the Rock Island Railroad, gave some forty acres that were two and a half miles southeast of the original settlement. Father Matthew Seattele became famous for his dedication to the expansion of the Roman Catholic Church. He is now sometimes called, "Arkansas’s Greatest Catholic Missionary." He died at the age of 73, after building some forty-two churches.
This church was not to last. In January of 1906, while the pastor of the church, Father Othmar Wehrlis, was giving mass, a fire started in the convent connecting the church. By canon law, once a mass has started, it cannot be ended prematurely, though this was not to say that the entire congregation had to stay in the church. However, it did make it difficult to save either the church or its artifacts. The only object saved was the high alter that had been imported from Germany. The church itself was a total loss.
Though they had lost their church, the parishioners of the parish were far from defeated. They soon began the construction of their second church by the name of St. Boniface. This church is the structure that stands today.
This church was designed by Oswald Miller, the local coffin maker. His father had taught him basic architecture and carpentry. This design was close in size and form to the first church, except that it had more Gothic elements to it and was not connected to a convent. It stood 100 feet high plus the five foot gold plated cross. It was designed with many elements of early Gothic Revival, a sub-type known as Carpenter Gothic. The lumber to build the church was cut on church property by the Fouche River Lumber Company. It was built by its parishioners.
Father Othmar remained pastor for another fifteen years. During this time, there was a rise of anti-foreigner and anti-Catholic sentiment in Arkansas, as was the case throughout the United States. With the beginning of the first World War, the became worse. But in the isolated town of New Dixie, there were few problems.
In 1947, a new two-room school was built to supplant the small one-room school that existed just northeast of the church. This school had two classrooms, a hall, and a stage. In 1950, the upper grades were consolidated with the Bigelow public schools. In 1969, the school was closed because of a shortage of nuns to use as school teachers. At that time, there were a total of thirty-two students in eight grades. The students either went to public school in Bigelow, or went to the Catholic schools in either Conway or Morrilton.
Before the 1960s, New Dixie was an isolated community; cut off by poor gravel roads and only a ferry crossed the river to Conway. In the 1960s, a bridge was built across the Arkansas River and the roads were all paved. Combined with better, faster cars, the closing of New Dixie’s only grocer, and no post office, New Dixie soon lost most of its community identity. The only institution that preserved its identity as a community was St. Boniface. The church often held dances that were visited by Catholics as well as Protestants. It was also the center of the community for such other events as weddings, funerals, and organizational meetings.
In the early 1970s, metal siding was added to the church building. Even a building as well constructed as this church can still be ravaged by time. This is why the church members held a heated debate in the late 1970s on whether to repair the church, or to demolish it and rebuild. The church had dry rot and a problem with wasp nests infesting its timbers. Eventually, the members decided to repair the existing building.
Since that time, an effort has been made to fix its structural problems and add some modern amenities that would be sympathetic with its original form. For example, at some unspecified date, electrical fluorescent lighting was added. The new lighting system was attached to the walls and the original lanterns that hung from the ceiling were removed. In the last five years, electric light chandeliers replaced the side lights in an attempt to copy the original style of "hanging lights." Other changes include the refurbishment of the main alter, the installation of central heat and air, the removal of the old wood stove, the addition of wall mounted fans and ceiling fans for the choir loft, the placement of a metal ladder on the bell tower, and the installation of new carpet for the alter area.
St. Boniface Catholic Church is a small mission church that has not only served the religious needs of a small community, but also has served as the symbolic center of the community in all respects, and this is why St. Boniface is significant. This original community gradually oriented itself around this church, whereas it was originally some two and one half miles away. If St. Boniface is not New Dixie, it certainly is its focus.
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