Faith is strong in middle America's small towns—but its future is uncertain.
There is not much of a skyline in Axtell, Kan., unless you count the nine grain silos or the rows of wind turbines that stitch gentle hills to the clouds. Fields of corn and soybeans color the 63 miles that separate this community of just over 400 people from the closest city, Manhattan, on the Kansas River.
Land is fertile near Axtell. So is the community’s faith. The steeple of St. Michael’s Catholic Church rises above the pines and oak trees, and on any given Sunday its pews are filled with more than half the town’s population. The Catholic faith is a marker of Axtell’s identity as much as the roads that turn to dirt and gravel at the town limits.
The urban parishes of the Northeast, planted and sustained by successive waves of Old World immigrants, have long had a starring role in the story of American Catholicism. Today, many Catholics see the future of the church in the growing Latino communities of the South and West. Often overlooked in this narrative are the churches between the coasts and beyond city limits that are the bedrock of rural communities like Axtell.
In his book Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America’s Heartland, author Robert J. Wuthnow notes that churches in Middle America often did not feature a high-rise steeple like those in New England because of the increased likelihood of powerful weather. Nevertheless, he writes, “An edifice demonstrated both a financial commitment and the congregation’s expectation that its presence would continue.”
In Axtell, it has. For more than 135 years, St. Michael’s has supported the community. The building’s red brick walls and white trim sit solidly and simply amid the surrounding homes. But the church’s stability in the town extends beyond the foundations.
At the center of Axtell’s church is the Rev. Albert Hauser. Like the farmers he ministers to, he works seven days a week, serving his tight-knit flock.
“[Faith] remains stronger in the small communities for whatever reason,” Father Hauser says. “Maybe their faith is stronger here. Maybe they hang on to it.”
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The church in Axtell is indeed thriving. But here, as in many small towns across the country, uncertainty about the future is also a fact of life. Success and stability are based on crop yields, which are at the mercy of unpredictable weather. School enrollment is declining as young families seek opportunity elsewhere. Small businesses struggle against big-box competitors that sell the same products for a fraction of the price.
What little traffic the town sees consists mostly of trucks hauling corn, soybeans and wheat to the local co-operative. The parishioners at St. Michael’s closely watch the commodity markets, something Father Hauser knew nothing about when he was assigned to the parish 15 years ago.
Farming, he has learned, is about the biggest gamble outside of going to the places in Las Vegas.
During the years when farmers did well, the church did, too. In 2010, church members pledged money to cover the cost of renovating the church interior—about $90,000, Father Hauser says, which made his job easier.
But he has also led the church through hard times. The ripples of a tragedy are far-reaching in a small community like Axtell. In May 2016, Father Hauser buried James A. Mathewson, a 46-year-old construction worker, who died in a work-related accident. The death of the neighbor and father shook the town.
“In the city, a tragic accident may affect a few people or a few families. But the rest of life goes on.... In a rural community, there is an effect [on the whole town].”
Some funerals struck particularly close to home for the priest. Last year, he celebrated the funeral Mass for his sister-in-law, having also celebrated her wedding to his brother years earlier. He also said the funeral Mass for his sister’s husband, who had passed away more than 30 years after Father Hauser had said their wedding Mass, too.
“It really was the whole gamut of joining them together and then burying one of them. A total separation in this life,” Father Hauser says. “Our faith is our support in a time like that.”
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Catholics are the third-largest religious group in Kansas, with 18 percent of the population, behind evangelicals and mainline Protestant denominations, according to the Pew Research Center. These days, Catholic and the nearby Methodist and Lutheran churches gather on the Sunday before Thanksgiving for an ecumenical service, a far cry from the bitter polarization that characterized the religious landscape in Kansas during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In 1889, Mr. Wuthnow writes, a Methodist preacher in Axtell spoke so forcefully about evil in Rome that violence broke out and the mayor sought state military intervention. The rift was not only religious but political: Until a party realignment following Roe v. Wade, Catholics were Democrats and Methodists were Republican.
“It’s not necessarily the Catholics taking care of the Catholics [anymore],” says Janet Schmitz, who grew up in Axtell and now attends a church where she lives, in nearby Baileyville. “It’s the town taking care of the town.”
The community helps the community, because that is who is around when problems arise. Elected officials feel distant, especially those more than 1,000 miles away in Washington, D.C. Many residents are wary of government aid.
“[Faith] remains stronger in the small communities for whatever reason,” Father Hauser said. “Maybe their faith is stronger here. Maybe they hang on to it.”
In the fall of 2016, the Axtell grocery store was struggling. Jennifer Jones, the owner and a former St. Michael’s parishioner (she now attends church closer to home in nearby Summerfield), was losing an uphill battle. She could not match the prices of big retailers in neighboring cities where many Axtell residents work. A small store cannot buy items in bulk, she says. Her store aisles number in single digits. Birthday cards are next to hardware, near DVD rentals.
Through a series of town meetings, the word went out to support small businesses like Ms. Jones’s grocery. The digital billboard on a street corner announced: “Buy local for a strong lasting community.” The weekly church bulletin features a similar message, in bold type: “Shop local. Shop at home. Support our town.”
While its range of products is not as diverse, the local food supplier offers something big retailers cannot duplicate.
“I don’t think you’d get a community as caring as this in other places,” she says, before turning to a waiting customer to ask when the baby is due. She asks another shopper about her grandson’s upcoming birthday.
Even with the push to buy local, what families purchase alone cannot sustain the business. Townwide dinners with food purchased from Ms. Jones’s store, such as those organized twice a year by the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus, are a major source of the grocery’s revenue.
Proceeds from a feast this past November benefited three local families, each of whom had been recently touched by tragedy. A parent of one family was badly injured. Two other families lost a parent. Compassion for others in the community is “bred into us,” says Kent Kuckelman, a member of the Knights of Columbus for nearly 30 years and a lifelong parishioner at St. Michael’s. The parents died young, he says, measuring ages the way lifelong town residents do—by how many years behind him they were in high school.
Another annual dinner organized by the Knights of Columbus used to benefit St. Michael’s School, a Catholic elementary established in 1889. The school closed in 2014 due to low enrollment.
Ms. Schmitz, who attended the Catholic school as a child, says the decision “split the town.” People of all ages were advocating on both sides. Debates were held in school board meetings and on street corners. “It was not taken lightly,” she says.
Keeping the Catholic school open could have forced the closure of the public school, since the public school funding is tied to enrollment. In its final year, St. Michael’s was down to 23 students in six grades. “That’s not feasible...because there was no hope of the number of children going up,” says Father Hauser. “The kids just aren’t there.”
Ms. Schmitz worries about the religious costs of closing the school. Junior high and high school students cross the street one morning a week to St. Michael’s for religious education, which is led by volunteer teachers. Religion has been a central part of life in Axtell, Ms. Schmitz says. “I hope that we don’t lose that faith.”
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The migration of small-town residents to bigger cities, especially among young people, has grown increasingly worrisome. More efficient machinery has decreased the amount of labor needed for farming, while further education and job openings remain clustered in urban areas.
Decreasing rural populations plague almost all Plains and Midwest states, but Kansas has been hit particularly hard, says Patty Clark, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development state director. While Kansas’ population has grown by almost 600,000 people since 1980, people living far outside metropolitan areas decreased by almost 60,000.
“I think rural communities are on the cuff,” Ms. Clark says. “They are on the edge of the cliff.”
In 1980, Axtell’s population reached a peak of 470. The current population is just over 400, the town’s lowest mark since its founding in the 1870s. The town offers few jobs beyond farming. The largest employer is the local electric company, which employs about 20 people. The average weekly wage in Marshall County, in which Axtell is located, is $683, according to the Kansas Department of Labor.
“You aren’t going to get rich working in some of the industries that are available,” Father Hauser says. “They will provide support for your family, yes, but over and above that, not too much.”
Residents still manage to give back generously, if not with money then with their time and talents. Volunteer effort was vital in completing the recent church renovation. Parishioners who worked as electricians replaced light fixtures and the interior wiring. Others installed the new sound system and moved pews for refinishing.
Mary Jane Rochel, an Axtell resident for more than 60 years, stands near the church entrance, speaking in a hushed tone as she points out the fruits of the volunteer efforts on the church. She likes the simplicity of the chapel, she says, adding that St. Michael’s has been her church home for decades.
“You sense a peacefulness when you come in here,” she says. “It’s always a good feeling to walk out of church and be thankful you were there.”
For Ms. Rochel, the church is a place of hope but also a painful reminder.
Her husband, Regis, built the frame around the depiction of the Last Supper. He worked on the altar and constructed the crucifix from recycled pews during a renovation in the 1970s. He and Ms. Rochel were married for 62 years and served as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist together. He passed away in November.
“Everywhere I look, I see him,” she says.
Yet, she returns to St. Michael’s. Everyone helps out with church picnics or other events. Ms. Rochel has coordinated volunteers for several years and has helped out with kitchen and dining room duties. Everyone sings during Mass, too, which she loves. Between the voices of the congregation, guitars, piano and an organ, music echoes throughout the chapel.
“Sunday mornings, they really lift the roof off this place.”
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The town migrates to the church on Sunday morning. Trucks, covered in various levels of dust, gather in the church parking lot, coming from their usual spots near the lumberyard or hardware store.
Residents and those living outside the city file in through the church’s glass double doors to take their place in familiar pews. Three women playing guitars accompany another woman on piano as they lead parishioners in “Shelter Me, O God.”
Father Hauser talks of the strength of God’s love in God’s willingness to suffer. When he finishes, those in the pews let the silence fill the space. For an hour, the stresses of life in Axtell fade.
Parishioners shake hands with Father Hauser as they stream past the bell-tower rope and out of the church. The sign on the way to the parking lot reflects the clear-eyed sense of hope those gathered have for the future of their church and their community: “Faith makes things possible...not easy.”