The Feast of St. Joseph: A Family Tale


My ancestry is quite fascinating, if I do write/say so myself!

My father’s side (the Birzers) came from eastern Bavaria (from several small villages near the Czech border) in 1888, immigrating straight to central Kansas, founding several communities just to the east and north of Great Bend, Kansas.  My favorite town in that area is Odin, named after the Norse All-father.  The head parish priest in the 1890s attempted to get the settlers and the state legislature of Kansas to rename the town Nazareth, believing Odin too pagan.  The cornerstone of the parish there still reads “Nazareth, Kansas.”  Suffice it to say, the new name never caught on, and Odin, Kansas, remains, well, Odin, Kansas.

Pfeifer cross ice

Holy Cross Cemetery, Pfeifer, Kansas. Photo taken early spring, 1989. Transferred from slide.

The ancestry of my mother’s side is a bit more complex.  Following an invitation from Tzarina Catherine the Great, the Kuhns and the Basgalls (at some point, of French origin, obviously), left the Black Forest of Swabia, migrating to the Steppes of Russia on the Volga River.  As far as we know, the German communities remained completely isolated–at least in terms of politics and religion–from the Eastern Orthodox to the north and their Islamic neighbors to south.  When Tzar Alexander II demanded they convert to Eastern Orthodoxy in 1874, breaking their original agreement with Catherine, they immigrated to Ellis County, Kansas. It was a good thing for the world that they did, as they brought with them hard-red Turkey winter wheat, thus providing the world with a supply of this grain for almost a century and a half.  Had they remained in Russia, they most likely would’ve starved with almost every other German in Russia during the 1920s.

As it turned out, the wheat of Kansas ended up feeding the Russians throughout most of the 20th century.

My ancestors also brought over the tumbleweed to North America, but that’s a less noble story.  A story for another time and another blog. Pride only goes so far.

When the Basgalls and Kuhns arrived in Ellis County, Kansas, in 1876, the original settlers (almost all of English-Scottish Protestant backgrounds) looked rather disdainfully at the new arrivals.   In its bi-weekly events column, the Hays Sentinel reported that “A big Russian was reposing upon the depot platform while his frau was patiently picking the vermin from his head.”   These “Russians” (later to be known in Kansas as “Rooshians” to distinguish them from Germans and from actual Russians) seem little different than the local Kansas Indian tribes, as they “seldom change garments, eat with their fingers from the same dish; and their cooking is done in an exceedingly primitive style.”  Another wrote: “Their presence is unmistakable; for where they are there is also something else, – a smell so pungent and potent as to make a strong man weak.”  Even years later, the local papers continued to report on these Russian Germans: “The sweet simplicity of our Russian people is never so vividly illustrated as when a maiden of 16 summers blows her nose on the rear breadth of her dress.”

As might be expected, my ancestors began to adopt American sanitary habits, and, today, I can vouch that they smell as good as any other American.

But, here’s the point of this rather long-winded post.  My Russian-German ancestors dedicated their entire group to the patronage of St. Joseph.  Consequently, they dedicated March 19th, St. Joseph’s Day, as a holy day of obligation (well, at least according to their own traditions) as a way of protecting themselves from crop failures. Every March 19th, they recited the following prayer/vow to God.

O God, whose attribute it is to be always merciful and to spare, protect us through the intercession of St. Joseph from crop failures.  In order to make ourselves, at least to a certain extent, worthy of this grace, we solemnly vow to keep the feast of St. Joseph as a holyday of obligation for all time and to spend some hours of that day in public prayer.

A bit later in the season, they celebrated the planting of crops for three days.  Elaborately dressed, they formed long processions and marched throughout the wheat fields asking for God’s blessing to protect them from nature’s wrath.  They prayed for “the powers that be to preserve the growing crop, destroy grasshoppers, worms and bugs and finally to mature the grain, allow a bountiful harvest and furnish a high-priced market.” I must admit, I absolutely love this prayer.  An ingenious mix of utilitarian efficacy and thoughtful petition and praise.  Maybe something akin to: “Dear God, I’m a dork.  Please don’t let my students realize this.”

If you’ve made it this far into this somewhat absurdly meandering post, God bless you.  And, happy feast of St. Joseph, the official holy day of my mother’s family.

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