Nearly 125 Years Old, Westphalia's Church Of The Visitation Lives On After Fire

Aug 2, 2019

From Texas Standard:

In tiny Zabcikville, some 90 minutes north of Austin, you’re bound to run into Green’s Sausage House. The popular spot has been around since the late 1940s.

When I walked into the restaurant earlier this week, it didn’t take long to learn what was on the minds of people eating there.

“In just a matter of minutes, it was totally engulfed,” Daniel Wilde says about a fire that destroyed a nearly 125-year-old Catholic church Monday in Westphalia, another tiny town six miles to the north.

The rubble of the Church of the Visitation, after it was destroyed by fire on Monday. In the background is the church's rectory, still intact.
Credit Jill Ament/Texas Standard

Wilde has lived in this area his entire life. Four generations of his family went to that church.

“Local people built that church up, so it’s very hard to see that go,” he says.

Church of the Visitation was built by German immigrants in the late 1890s. It was hard to miss, towering over the vast rows of Central Texas cornfields.

Made with stones hauled by train and buggy from a town near La Grange, and timber from Waco, the church measured 120 feet long and 52 feet wide. Two large, copper-domed bell towers, both adorned with crosses, rose above each side of the sanctuary. Inside the sanctuary were 20 stained-glass windows from Germany through which light filtered and illuminated the hand-carved pews, an altar and a towering pipe organ.

Monday’s fire destroyed it all. 

“You drive through … the church used to be there, you know?" Wilde says. "And those of us that’ve been here this long, we’ll always remember it as being there and what it looked like."

When I visited Tuesday, all that was left was a pile of charred and smoldering rubble. Fire crews and investigators were sifting through the remains, looking for clues as to what started the fire.

“My sister-in-law was out at my mother-in-law’s farm and actually saw smoke coming out of the south tower at about 7:55 a.m.," says Jerry Loden, the volunteer fire department’s assistant fire chief. "That’s when she called me. And then, of course, I saw the smoke 'cause you can see it from all the way around."

Loden, who is a member of the church, says the first firefighters arrived at the church around 8 a.m.

“Obviously, a lot of lumber, dry wood and the wind was just really blowing hard, and so it became apparent pretty quick we weren’t going to have enough resources quick enough to be able to save the structure," he says. "So we had to, more or less, focus on saving the rectory where the priest lives, and we were able to at least save that."

The congregation comprises about 500 people from the area who are still very active. They were planning to hold a 125th-anniversary celebration next May.

“It’s hard to put into words, but it’s a feeling of loss. Living just a stone’s throw away, to see the steeple’s not there, it’s surreal," Loden says. "I was married here to my high school sweetheart 34 years ago.'

The church's historic schoolhouse, across the street from the sanctuary, was untouched by the fire.
Credit Jill Ament/Texas Standard

Across the street, the church’s historic schoolhouse, now a museum, was spared. Loden says there are likely thousands of photos stored there of people who were married at the church.

He says Westphalia holds a picnic and homecoming event every year when thousands of descendants of parishioners show up.

This week, descendants like Rosemary Clark and her daughter came out to see what was left of the church. Clark’s parents were baptized and married in the church. Her father is buried at the cemetery across the street.

“It was really pretty 'cause you’d go to the cemetery, you know – I’d go to the cemetery and put flowers out, and they always had the bells. That was really peaceful; so pretty,” Clark says.

Clark lives in Waco and her daughter lives in Austin, but she says they come back to the church a couple of times a year. It’s a similar story for other visitors, like Debbie McQueen.

“It’s like coming home, and now, there’s – the home is not there, but the memories are still there. It’s just going to be very much missed. And believe me, it will come back again,” she says.

McQueen’s right: Church leaders are already discussing plans to rebuild the church to look exactly like it used to. Some say it’ll be bigger and better than ever.