Historic Windthorst church suffers major water damage

Rueb vows that 105-year-old Immaculate Heart of Mary ‘will be ready for Easter concert’

 
By Dave Myers
Southwest Kansas Catholic

The historic Immaculate Heart of Mary Church at Windthorst suffered major damage Nov. 11 when hundreds of gallons of water leaked into the basement and worship area due to a boiler malfunction.

The exact nature of the malfunction has not been determined. Susan Rueb, president of the board of directors of Windthorst Heritage, Inc., which owns the building, said she expects the damage to exceed $250,000.

“We discovered it Saturday (Nov. 11) late afternoon,” said Rueb. “We had several community deaths, and Carol Correll came here to put the names on the board. She saw standing water in the church.”

Rueb’s husband, Kenny, a fourth generation Windthorst resident, was the first to enter the church following the discovery.

“When I stepped on the carpet, the water was about an inch deep,” he said. “The radiators, which supply steam heat to the worship area, were leaking water.”                     

When Kenny tried to adjust the valve, abnormally high pressure forced the water out like a fire hose, shooting from the back of the church nearly to the altar.

They turned off the main valve. Susan Rueb checked the basement and found nearly five inches of standing water. Much of the ceiling had caved in, revealing a burst pipe.

“We realized this was going to take more than a couple of shop-vacs,” she said.

The Diocese of Dodge City closed the church in 1997 and sold it to Windthorst Heritage Inc. for $1.

Since taking over the parish maintenance 20 years ago, Windthorst Heritage, Inc. has overseen numerous restoration projects. They hired a company to clean and refurbish all the century-old stained-glass windows. They replaced all the sidewalks around and in front of the church. They renovated the rectory’s exterior and interior. A new sewer system was installed, and maintenances were performed on the church roof.

Each effort required fund-raising, grant-writing, much sweat-equity and prayers.

Which made it all the more heart-breaking when Rueb found herself wading through five inches of water in the basement to a room off to the side in which she stored all the historic records of the church, including the 1870s document in which the Santa Fe Railroad deeded the land to the Catholic Church. 

There were monstrances, chalices, a tabernacle from 1878. As she reached the room, Rueb prayed that they had been spared. When she opened the door, she saw that the ceiling had collapsed. Nothing was spared damage. The historic documents were soaked.

“ServiceMaster told us to place all the wet documents into Ziploc bags,” Rueb explained. “They told us to freeze them. Instead of calling all our neighbors and asking if they had room in their freezers, we called Kirby Meats in Dodge City. They stored them all in their freezer until they go to Chicago for restoration. God bless Kirby Meats!”

The restoration team from ServiceMaster showed up within an hour of Rueb’s call on Saturday afternoon. Their first job was to remove as much water as possible; that night more than 500 gallons were removed from the basement. The team brought 40 blowers, 17 dehumidifiers, and an industrial heater with 50,000 BTUs of heat working to dry the wooden floors of the former worship area.

One team ripped through the damaged ceiling in the basement. Another scraped linoleum from the floor of the worship area to allow the century-old hardwood floors to dry. ServiceMaster brought in two large storage units to allow them to store furniture and other items, allowing them space to work.

Meanwhile, Rueb and other volunteers labored to move all the historic items out of the basement. Community volunteers worked until 10 p.m. ServiceMaster continued until 2 a.m., and was there when volunteers returned the next morning.

While closed as an active church, the structure remains firmly in the heart of a multitude of people dispersed across southwest Kansas and beyond who attended the K-12 Catholic school and grew up celebrating Mass in one of the most beautiful churches in the diocese.

“We were the mother church of western Kansas,” Rueb said, proudly. “We existed in this prairie in the middle of nowhere. This is a monument to the history of the people who settled the plains of Kansas.

“In the 1950s, we had 350 families,” Rueb said. “When we closed we had 33 families. In 20 years, I’ve met a lot of descendants. From one family who lived nearby, the dad helped build the steeple. The kids watched from a distance—they could see Dad at work.”

Rueb is certainly heartbroken at the events of Nov. 11, but she is also deeply appreciative. She’s thankful for the efforts of the restoration team, which quickly took control of the situation and gave her the advice she needed to save the historic paperwork. She’s thankful for the community of volunteers and for the Windthorst Heritage, Inc. board.

“I’m just one of the caretakers,” she said. The success of the structure is “because of the people with whom I’ve been on the board for 20 years. I have a good foundation to work with.

“A tornado did not blow away the church. Nothing is damaged that cannot be fixed. I have a mess on my hands, and I have God looking over my shoulder.”

While the annual Christmas concert has been cancelled, she expects the structure to be ready and in good shape for the Easter concert. The event will not only celebrate the rebirth of our Savior, but yet another rebirth of this beloved church on the prairie.