1931 Christmas fire sparks long friendship

In 1931 the true spirit of Christmas brought a community together.
For three hours on a chilly Saturday evening right before Christmas, the Epworth United Methodist Church created a living nativity scene on Divine Word College property at the corner of Jacoby Dr. and Center Ave., just off Highway 20.

Living_nativity-(1).jpgThe location was perfect for the Methodist’s effort, which brought together live animals and local actors to recreate the first Christmas. Some residents walked by, others drove past and more than a few parked their cars to get out and reflect upon the scene. The experience was, at once, both solemn and uplifting.  This collaborative local relationship between the two Christian faith traditions – Methodist and Catholic – is not new to Epworth. But that was not always the case.

Apprehension and suspicion greeted the priests and brothers of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD), when they first arrived in the predominantly Methodist community in the summer of 1931 to establish a minor seminary—or high school. Epworth was named for the English town where the founder of the Methodist faith, John Wesley, was born and the property the SVD purchased had in fact been a Methodist seminary from 1857 to the early 1920s. After a brief stint as a military academy, the 15 acre property and its seven buildings were vacant for the rest of the decade.

Meanwhile, the SVD in the U.S., headquartered at Techny in Chicago, had been searching for a place to establish a minor seminary west of the Mississippi. In 1931, the newly appointed archbishop of Dubuque, Most Reverend Francis Beckman—who had developed a good relationship with the SVD during his time in Ohio— granted the order’s request to establish a school in the archdiocese and suggested the Epworth site. The land was purchased and SVDs from Techny, primarily Brother Benedict Vollmecke, were sent to repair and remodel the buildings so they could be used for the new school.

In a memoir of the time, Rev. Francis Humel, SVD, the first rector of what would become known as St. Paul’s Mission House—predecessor of Divine Word College—said the local citizenry was not overly pleased that this group of Catholics was moving into their Methodist community. Residents would cross a street rather than share a sidewalk with the members of the missionary order.

“The mailman of the rural route who lived across the street from our school building was to have said he would move from there soon, as he did not want to live in the shadow of the cross from our building,” Humel wrote.
That would change.

Among the seven buildings was a small, wood-framed gym, which was a place for the young seminarians to play basketball. It could be chilly inside when the weather turned cold, so Humel bought a pot-bellied stove to warm the space and Brother Benedict laid down bricks to protect the wood floor against the heat.

At approximately 11 a.m. on Christmas morning, 1931, the bricks became over heated and the floor and wall caught fire. Services at the Methodist church had just begun.

“When the fire alarm bell sounded, out they came running and in their Christmas clothes worked till everything was under control and the fire was out,” Humel wrote. “None of them took it amiss that they had to put out that Catholic fire on Christmas morning.”

The flames seemed to thaw a chilly relationship and the citizenry appreciated the priests and brothers efforts to show their gratitude.

“I really believe in that way that the ice was broken and everyone became more friendly from then on,” Humel wrote, noting, for instance, a change in that mailman mentioned earlier, “Later he and Brother Benedict became great friends.”

The SVDs in Epworth returned the favor to the community after a disastrous fire destroyed the Silker’s store, which was, and still is, a retail mainstay in the town. Described in an article by local historian and writer John Schwendinger, first published in the Dyersville Commercial, on Dec. 7, 1978, the store handled everything but furniture and had the only supply of groceries in the town. When the fire destroyed the store on Dec. 6, 1957, it raised concerns throughout the community.

“The ashes, however, had hardly grown cold when Silker’s was back in business,” Schwendinger wrote. “A temporary store was set up in a building on the Society of the Divine Word grounds, to take care of the immediate needs of the people.”

More than 50 years later, the faith traditions continue to operate side-by-side in Epworth and
Rev. Stephanie Schlimm
surrounding communities, occasionally collaborating on events such as a Thanksgiving dinner for the community. Rev. Stephanie Schlimm, pastor of Epworth United Methodist Church said she worked with Rev. Kurt Hansen of New Hope Lutheran Church in Farley and Deacon Jim Kean of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Epworth on an ecumenical service.

“I think people were sort of surprised by what was similar in our worship,” she said. “Perhaps we have different twists on the liturgy, different kinds of language, but it’s not any major difference, so I think that is a really good thing for people to experience.”

Rev. Jim Bergin, SVD, rector of Divine Word College, said that having a positive relationship with the local community and its different faiths has always been important to DWC. Respect for other faith traditions has been a hallmark of the SVD since it was founded in 1875.

“Jesus welcomed everyone to hear his message, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’” Bergin said. “The fire in 1931 showed that that message was not lost on the people of this community, who came to the aid of a neighbor in a time of trouble.”

On a chilly Saturday evening before Christmas, you couldn’t tell one denomination from another as they walked by, drove past or parked their cars to get out and absorb the atmosphere created by the living nativity scene on a little corner of Divine Word College property. People were people, and they all could focus instead on what they had in common—celebrating the birth of Christ.

“It just reminds us of who we are and where we come from,” Schlimm said. “It’s the story of God and that is just miraculous.”