Sigel St. Michael

Sigel St. Michael Church has welcomed many generations of parishioners through the years. They will celebrate 150 years of faith and family ties.

By Herb Meeker
News Report Staff
St. Michael Parish in Sigel is celebrating its Sesquicentennial for three days in three weeks.
The 150th celebration starts with a Mass in the church at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 29. Then the alumni line up for basketball games at 7 p.m. that night in the All Parish Center.
The activities start at 11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 30, with self-guided tours of the school, church and rectory. There will be a wiffle ball tournament at 11 a.m. and old-fashioned kids games at 2 p.m. Be sure to buy, borrow or catch your turtle soon for the turtle race at 3 p.m. Family feud will start at 4:30 p.m. in the Parish Center and Saturday events end with music by Allie Keck, of Nashville, a former Neoga resident, and the Feudin’ Hillbillies, starting at 7 and ending at 11. Fireworks are scheduled for 9:15 that night.
An outdoor Pontifical High Mass will be conducted by Bishop Thomas John Paprocki at 10 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 1. Then a family meal will be offered at 11 a.m. Sunday. There will be a free photo booth from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday and at 1 p.m., Larry DeLawder will offer his comedy as “Barney Fife” of Mayberry fame.
All the fun is to honor a community dedicated to faith over the past 150 years.
“‘This Far by Faith’ is the theme of the celebration. Our ancestors and our faith are how we’ve gotten this far,” said Betty Zumbahlen, one of several Sesquicentennial organizers or lifelong parishioners gathered around a dinner table last week in a home across the street from the tall brick church and Catholic school campus.
Some of their ancestors came a long way to get St. Michael the Archangel Church and its school started. Many of them were German immigrants, anxious to escape religious persecution in their home countries. They found good land and soon raised money for building a new church and school.
Then misfortune struck. The church burned down. The fire destroyed the school. The new Americans were not daunted by God’s test of their devotion, however. A new church and school were soon built with donations and the sweat of the parishioners. The Catholics of Sigel wanted their children to be taught their faith in a church school next to their house of worship.
The church had been dedicated on the Feast Day of St. Michael so the archangel’s name was set for the parish. A statue of St. Michael stands in the entrance to the grade school. The divine warrior is spearing a demon, which can serve as a silent reminder to St. Michael students to steer toward the right path.
An influx of German immigrants helped secure the name for the village of Sigel. At first, some residents wanted to name the new town after Union General Joseph Hooker. But General Franz Sigel, with his German roots, was a favorite among German-Americans serving in the Union Army. “Me fit with Sigel!” was a common boast among the German immigrants, so the village was incorporated as Sigel in 1863, about four years before the parish was established.
Bob Zumbahlen, whose ancestors came to the Sigel community in 1851, joked that some German veterans of that war sometimes added, “And I retreat with Sigel, too.” Sigel had some success at the 1862 battle of Pea Ridge in Arkansas, but there were other times he was outflanked by the Confederates.
As the town grew, so did the Catholic parish. Records showing the original parish family names numbered about 60, based on parish donor lists. Today, about one third of those families still live in the parish.
“Sigel, years ago, was quite a town. It had a flour mill and a wagon maker. There was a machinery dealer on wheat binders,” Mike Walk said. “And you had the Illinois Central Railroad going through here so there were plenty of tradesmen.”
The town was progressing, but some old ways of the countryside did not fade away fast enough. There are old images of iron fencing around St. Michael Church. Younger parishioners wonder if it was a tradition for sheltering sacred ground. Walk believes it might have related to protection, but not against demons.
“I understand they had fencing to keep hogs out. People let them roam free in town for years. There was a vote to make people pen their hogs up. It was voted down. A newspaper correspondent wasn’t too happy about it. He wrote the hogs won,” Walk said.
Eventually, the hogs lost and the town took full pride in its appearance. When General Sigel came to the town in 1891, there was grand celebration with music, speeches and beer. The town received a painting of General Sigel in a heroic pose on a horse amidst a battle scene. It was hung with pride in the village hall for many years.
Then the painting was lost to history through a bizarre mistake.
“They were cleaning out the town hall one year and a workman took down the painting and put it on the rubbish heap. It was burned with the trash,” Walk said.
There were undoubtedly many “Hail Marys” and “Hail Fathers” ordered by Father George Faller after church confessions that week to atone for any ridicule hurled at the workman.
Faller was a very influential priest through the history of St. Michael, serving as pastor from 1927-54. His name is on the 1929 cornerstone of the two-story brick school building that houses the primary grades of St. Michael Catholic School. Throughout the school year, the children line up and walk down the front steps headed to morning Mass at the church. And just like their great-great-grandparents, great-grandparents, grandparents and parents, they are reminded by their teachers to be silent when they enter the church with the steeple rising 102 feet above a pair of tall trees.
St. Michael parishioners were not very silent when they learned a local bank was closing during the Great Depression, not long after the newer school building had opened its doors. Sigel residents were going to lose their life savings, but Father Faller found a way to protect his flock from financial ruin at a time when bank deposits were not insured by the government.
“He went to Effingham and convinced the directors of the Effingham State Bank to assume the deposits. People had to wait for their money, but they got it. Father Faller held a public meeting and calmed the people down, too. The only people losing money from the bank failure were the stockholders in the bank. My great-grandfather lost money on his shares,” Walk said.
The spirit of helping others is strong in the St. Michael Parish today.
“You ask for volunteers and they always come forward. And people come together during hard times for funerals and illness, too,” Betty Zumbahlen said.
The parish would prosper through the 1940s and 1950s. Time came for adding a second school building 50 years ago. Soon girls in their pressed dresses and boys in white shirts and black pants were tugging at their thin black ties as they walked to Mass on warm school mornings. At recess, the school was a scene of controlled chaos as the children played games or shot baskets. The St. Michael Sharpshooters take great pride in their team name, which applies to their successful track teams as well.
Emphasis on academics and faith are a winning formula for St. Michael. Several years ago, the Catholic School had declining enrollment. Then the parish supported starting a preschool program to draw families to the school. It proved a great success with enrollment from preschool through eighth grade at 163 students. There are 84 school families with the 375 families in St. Michael Parish.
“The younger people come here to the school and they contribute a lot. New blood is good for the parish,” said Janet Hanfland.
Three years ago, the parish added the All Parish Center to its grade school building. It has proved a good investment with many wedding receptions taking place there. Many couples have taken their first dance together in the center and caused their parents to shed tears with those life-changing moments.
From its beginning, St. Michael Parish was about bringing families of a common faith together. The celebration activities during Sept. 29 through Oct. 1 will continue that tradition.