In the Spotlight

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Pierz: Catholic Town Finds Change Slow, Inevitable
By Rachel Reabe
October 8, 1997

Click for audio Audio for this story will be available shortly. --Ed.

Nine years ago Mainstreet Radio profiled the central Minnesota town of Pierz, located 10 miles east of Little Falls, as part of a documentary on small town religion. This was a place where everybody was Catholic - mostly German Catholic - and community life revolved around the Catholic Church. In 1997, Pierz, holding steady at a thousand people, is still a one-church town, but things are slowly changing. In the schools, on main street, and in the church.

On a cold December afternoon in 1988, Valarie Shommer and Ryan Hoheisel exchanged wedding vows at St. John's Catholic Church just north of Pierz.

SFX: Ladies and Gentlemen, I'm very happy to present to you Mr. and Mrs. Ryan Hoheisel. (Applause; music up.)
The young couple who had grown up in the area said their main goal was to stay in Pierz, buy a dairy farm, d raise a family. Nine years later, those dreams have pretty much come true.

Valarie: This is Tommy, that's Crystal, and Jacob is still eating breakfast. It's very peaceful living out in the country. We're right in the middle of our l60 acres.

We have 30 acres of corn and alfalfa.

Valarie and Ryan Hoheisel and their three children now have a farm just down the road from her parent's dairy farm. Their's is a hobby farm. Low milk prices and high equipment costs helped them decide not to farm full time. Instead, Ryan kept his construction job, driving up to 200 miles a day for work. For extra money, they sell hay and alfalfa and raise heifer calves. Valarie stays home with their three preschool children, and takes care of the animals in a big metal barn across the yard from the house.

This is our newest baby calf. This calf is two weeks old. We'd better mix up some milk for this baby. Tommy likes to do the mixing. Tommy, you can mix it up.
Valarie says she and Ryan are trying to raise their family just as their parents raised them - in a small Catholic community surrounded by family and friends. But with their oldest child entering kindergarten next year the Hoheisels are facing different choices.
The way we were raised, you gotta send them to Catholic school. There's no other way about it, but things are changing. You can't be that close-minded. Maybe we will end up sending our kids to Catholic school. Maybe we won't. We're going to go with what we feel is right.
Valarie and Ryan both attended Catholic schools; so did their parents. It's the way things were done in the Pierz area where ten years ago seventy percent of elementary students attended parochial schools. The lone public elementary school was stuck way up on the district's northern border, small and inconvenient. But now there's a big, new elementary school in Pierz.
You're seeing this brand new school set up, and lots of teachers coming in, new band room, new gym, new bathrooms. The Catholic school is quite old, my mom went to school there. It's a very old building. You've really got to take a step back and look and say what are we going to send our kids too.

Valarie's mom, Karen Shommer, says Catholic schools are a great place to learn religion. But she can see times have changed.

Things have really mellowed. It isn't forced upon the parents as much as when we went to. You took it for granted everybody went to a Catholic school and nowadays there's them choices out there that the kids are seeing and they are going for. I feel if you talk at home about your religion and you keep religion and faith in your home, you don't have to go to no Catholic school.
When the new public elementary school opened in Pierz in 199l, enrollment at the Catholic school dropped sharply and continues to decline. In a dramatic turn around, 70 percent of Pierz school children now attend Pioneer, the sprawling, contemporary public school.
SFX: kids rushing out of school.
On a rainy fall afternoon, Pioneer students stream out of school on their way to the school buses. Principal Gaylen Swoboda stands outside the door and says goodbye.
SFX: Goodbye, Mr. Swoboda. Goodbye, Tommy, goodbye Ruth. See you tomorrow.
Swoboda says they don't compete with the Catholic school, they cooperate.
I think we coexist very well. I hope our parochial school never closes. There's room for both of us, and they both serve their purpose, and it gives parents a choice. We don't have room anyway for more students, we're full.
They are not full a couple of blocks away at Holy Trinity, the Catholic elementary school. Father Ken Brenny, who oversees the school along with the St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Pierz, says they struggle to keep their enrollment up. But Catholic parents are no longer instructed to send their kids to parochial school.
I try to encourage it but I never tell anyone what to do. People aren't the same now. You can't tell people what to do. You give them encouragement and point out the reasons and it's their choice.
Father Brenny says he sees the community of Pierz changing.
I'm having more mixed marriages and in the community you're seeing a lot more people who are not Catholic moving in. Now we have a number of people who are not Catholic and very much involved in the community. It's good to see new ideas. A lot of new things are going on.
Pierz has changed more slowly than many other rural communities. But rural sociologist Jim Krile with the Blandin Foundation says change is inevitable for Pierz and every place else.
There's not much that can be done to put up a wall around Pierz and say no to newcomers 'cause the newcomers are already there. Diversity now doesn't mean do you go to the 10:00 am mass or the l2:30 pm mass. Diversity might have some other aspects to it.
Krile says the tightly woven tapestry that is Pierz can remain - a close-knit settlement of predominantly German Catholics. But the people of Pierz now have other threads to weave into their community.