The German Migration, Their Churches, and Their Legacy

compiled by Kathy Niedergeses

The following is copyrighted by the author and is not to be used in its entirety for any purpose. Excerpts may be used by permission. The information is being made available for researchers to see what life was like and to find the names of the families who migrated to Lawrence Co. For further details you may contact the author.

Many of the German families that came to the United States were not satisfied with the conditions where they were living. The large cities bustling with activity were too crowded and the economy with its deflated job market since the Civil War caused many of the newly immigrated German families to long for a place of better opportunity.

In 1868, Father Joseph Busse of the Precious Blood order formed the Cincinnati German Catholic Homestead Society in Cincinnati, Ohio, with a membership of 280. This society was made up of craftsmen engaged in carpentry, painting, harness making, bricklaying, cigar manufacturing, and many other labor groups. Members were urged to take up the occupation of agriculture.

The site chosen was Lawrence County, Tennessee, where land could be purchased at a much cheaper price. The society purchased between 25,000 and 30,000 acres of land in Lawrence County - 800 of this adjoining the town of Lawrenceburg to be laid out in town lots, with the remainder of their property consisting of various amounts north, south, west, and east of Lawrenceburg. A large majority of the property purchased in the town of Lawrenceburg belonged to the once wealthy Bentley family.

On November 14, 1870, Reverend J. H. Heuser of Millhousen, Indiana, arrived in Lawrenceburg with the first fifteen families. Advertisement in many of the German newspapers soon enticed families from Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Iowa to make the long and treacherous journey. Many came by train to Pulaski and on to Lawrenceburg by wagon, while others traveled by wagon across rivers and rough terrain bringing with them the few possessions they could transport. A few came by boat to Muscle Shoals and then to Lawrence County by wagon.

The first Mass was held in 1870 in a huge two story brick house known as the Simonton-Fain-McDougal house, but at the time was owned by J. B. Jeup. It was located on what is now Fain Court, with the front of the property extending all the way to North Military Street. A short time later Mass was held on the corner of Groh Street and Buffalo Road in a small store, which was moved to the property for this purpose. This small church was named St. Joseph's Church. (This property was later owned by Henry Bernard Feldhaus, Jr. who built a large red brick house that still stands today.)

Father Heuser only remained at the church in Lawrenceburg for three months before moving on to establish churches in Loretto, St. Joseph, and St. Mary's in Lawrence County, and St. Florian in Lauderdale County, Alabama. With no one to fill the vacancy left by Father Heuser, since many young priests had died from epidemics of cholera in Nashville and yellow fever in Memphis, Bishop Patrick A. Feehan of the Nashville Diocese petitioned for assistance.

In February of 1872, Fathers Francis Xavier Griessmeier and Rochus Schuele arrived in Pulaski with several lay Brothers. They had to spend the night at a hotel in Pulaski where "everything was primitive and a trunk and box were used to secure the door from intruders." The next morning they started to Lawrenceburg with a procession of parishioners. About this trip Father Griessmeier stated, "The twenty mile journey and the infinite number of crossings over the mountain streams, not to mention the neck breaking road that was steep, rocky, and narrow, made us wonder if we would arrive alive. Still we loved the snow covered area and the trees were wonderful to behold."

The house used as a home by the priests was the large frame home of the Bentley family which was deserted and neglected. It was located on the corner of Groh Street and Buffalo Road opposite the building being used as a church. The Brothers were placed in a house on Buffalo Road.

There were soon one hundred families in the parish and a bigger church was needed along with a school. The congregation decided to build a new frame church on Berger Street. Although the church was not finished, dedication was held May 18, 1872. Bishop Feehan celebrated the first Pontifical High Mass in Lawrenceburg and blessed and dedicated Calvary Cemetery on the corner of Mahr Avenue and May Street.

A convent was constructed for the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood on Palmer Street. The old original two-room church and the convent were used as the first parochial school in Lawrence County. Children living too far out in the country to walk to school every day boarded with the Sisters and Brothers in Lawrenceburg.

In the fall of 1886, the still growing congregation decided to build a much larger church of brick on Berger Street. Since most of the members were skilled in the trades necessary to build the church, a majority of the materials and labor were donated by members of the church, with the bricks for the church being molded from clay at the rear of the property. On May 3, 1887, the dedication ceremony was held for the laying of the cornerstone for Lawrenceburg Sacred Heart Church. A grand dedication ceremony was held for the newly completed church on May 8, 1890. Although various aspects of the church have been up-graded and remodeled, the basic design remains the same and it is one of the most beautiful churches anywhere today.

Some early families associated with the Lawrenceburg church were Niedergeses, Soehwenniger, Debus, Rose, Severin, Mueller, Jungblut (Youngblood), Kraus, Gunselman, Mester, Beuerlein, Schade, Mahr, Frietch, Waltz, Boulie, Kollefrath, Remke, Roser, Wolz, Kemper, Brink, Wunner, Widmer, Locher, Rau, Toben, Lenke, Schweiss, Schmidt, Daig, Rohling, Diemer, Orth, Runnebaum, Henn, and Groh.

Two churches were formed as mission churches of the Lawrenceburg church - Holy Trinity and New Einsiedeln. The Holy Trinity Catholic parish was formed in the Beshville community (now a part of Deerfield), not too far from Laurel Hill, about ten miles west of Lawrenceburg in 1873. The small log structure erected was only a mission church, with priests coming from Lawrenceburg and later from New Einsiedeln in the Brace community. A cemetery called Holy Faith was established behind the church July 23, 1877, and consisted of about four acres. The church and cemetery were on the north side of Highway 64 just past present Greenwood Road several yards back under a grove of trees. The graves were all marked with wooden crosses and burned in a fire that also destroyed a lot of the trees. Several members of the church were originally from Poland, with the rest being from Germany.

The Stermer family came from Chicago after the "big fire" and owned a lot of the property in the area at the time. They brought the dishes and glassware that had survived the fire with them. A lot of this property remained in the Ellis family for many years after the marriage of Anastasia Stermer to Fred Ellis, Sr. Mrs. Fred Ellis used to make paper roses and flowers for the church and graves. The building was also most likely used as a school for the Catholic children in the area. After the building was no longer used as a church, it served the community as Abner School.

According to the 1880 census, some of the German families that lived in the area were Ash, Stermer, Feldhaus, Schneider, Gmenweiser, Goratcha, Fischer, Orth, Antwiler/Enswiler, Neiman, Tillman, Hess, Schmitti, Thesing, Geesing, Titus, Neicler, Meiers, Lieus, Geldreich, Younghaus, Ellis, Eckart, and Herchenhan.

Nothing remains of this church and cemetery except a few sunken in spots in the ground where graves are located. The property is currently owned by Glean Andrews and a fence runs down the middle of what used to be a road leading to the church (per personal visit in 1998).

In 1874, another Catholic community sprang up in northern Lawrence County near the Brace community. This lead to the establishment of a Catholic mission called New Einsiedeln in honor of the famous Benedictine shrine of Einsiedeln, or Our Lady of the Hermit in Switzerland. The actual mission buildings were located on what is now Yoder Road, but the property extended as far as the railroad track. Seven hundred acres were purchased and Fathers John Wittmer and Andrew Stiefvater, accompained by Sisters and lay Brothers arrived to help erect the mission. Father Wittmer's religious name was John A. Cruse, or John of the Cross, so New Einsiedeln later began to be referred to as St. John's. St Mary's cemetery was located here and several of the Sisters and Brothers who died were buried here.

Since there were no buildings in the area, some of the priests, Brothers, and Sisters dwelt with an elderly German family, while others stayed with another family still farther away. In a few weeks, the first "block" house (squared timber and logs) was finally finished. After several months, additional block houses were constructed until the community consisted of a priest's house, convent, brother's house, chapel, school, bakery, sawmill, and a large barn made of split logs. In 1878, a few hundred dollars were collected and forty acres purchased a mile from the convent for a church, cemetery, and school. An old store was moved to the proposed site of the school. But because of the lack of money, since there were only about ten families the mission served, the church was never built.

The land was very poor, with crop yields that ranged from poor to non-existent, and there were lean months when they had to depend on the generosity of neighboring families for food. They had a well and a spring from which to get their water. A large apple orchard provided apples for the mission as well as for neighbors.

Sister Tharsilla Bieber and Sister Tertulla Geisenhof had been sent by Mother Kunigunda to do the cooking, laundering, and mending, but the work proved too hard for them. Sister Milburgis from Munster, Indiana, was sent to replace them. Besides the ordinary tasks, she was commissioned to begin the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. She was accompained by Sister Mary Tobler, Sister Albertina Greuly and two novices, Sister Gabriela Dilger and Sister Coletta Nunlist.

The Sisters cared for orphan girls, never more than thirty at one time. The convent had to be enlarged to accommodate them. They also opened two schools - a district school in 1874 with 40 pupils, and a convent school in 1882. Teachers at St. Mary's Grade School (district school) were Sister Irmgardis Dick and Sister Stylitta Summer. Sister Louis Wunderle and Sister Irmgardis Dick taught at the Convent School. An example of how determined Catholic parents were to give their children a good education in the Catholic faith is that of a young boy who lived at Enterprise in Maury County. He walked from his home to Sandy Hook where he caught a train going to New Einsiedeln and boarded there all week, returning home only on weekends.

After many of the families left New Einsiedeln because of the poor quality of the land and the climate not being what they were used to, since some of them were originally from Switzerland, the officials decided in 1893 to close the mission. It was sold in 1893 to three men by the name of Venge, Elseth, and Schyol, who all later defaulted on their payments and the case was taken to the Supreme Court in Nashville. When the mission was closed the bodies of the few buried at New Einsiedeln were moved to Calvary Cemetery in Lawrenceburg and buried in two graves.

As late as 1942, the school building was still in existence. In 1987, there was still one dilapidated log building standing, which was the Brother's house. It had later served as a barn, until in the early 1990s when the building was torn down, because it was in danger of falling down. Nothing remains of the thirty acres of apple orchards, but people in the neighborhood remember gathering apples long after the mission was deserted. There is an old white house on the property, but all that remains to show any sign of the mission is the well and spring a short piece from the house (per personal visit in 1996).

Families associated with New Einsiedeln were Oehman, Ehemen, Beiser, Gang, Billmeier, Miller, Goessman, Zing, Held, Hymer, Hines, Melcher, Rouse, Pfleigel, and Neidert.

In the fall of 1871, Father J. H. Heuser moved several miles south of Lawrenceburg to a town called Glennrock. A large frame parochial residence was built which was also occupied by a lay teacher, Bernard Klaholz, and his family. Here daily mass was read from October of 1871 to February of 1872. Loretto Sacred Heart Cemetery was also established about the same time as the church.

Father Heuser renamed the town Loretto after Loretto Sacred Heart Church was built. Soon a frame church, which was also used as a school, was erected with Mass being said in it for the first time on February 2, 1872. The first First Communion Class was held in 1872 and the first Confirmation Class in 1883.

In 1876, the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood of the Mother House at Maria Stein, Ohio, took charge of the school. In 1904, because of a decrease in attendance the Sisters were forced to give up the schools at Loretto and St. Joseph and lay teachers taught until 1906, at which time the Sisters of Mercy took charge of the schools. By 1907, a large two-story frame school was built. In 1910, plans were being made to build a large brick church which was completed in 1912. A huge dedication ceremony was held with lots of food and entertainment. The church has majestic arches and nine beautiful stained glass memorial windows. Many improvements have been made over the years. From November 1912 to present time, Loretto Catholic Church has had full service - two Masses on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. The Rev. Sliemers painted the beautiful murals in the church in 1913, with the frescoing done by Mr. Kover of Ft. Wayne, Indiana in 1915. Many items in the church were donated by the generous parishioners. Renovations and repairs have been done on the church over the years. During one of these renovations, the crystal chandelier that hung in the church for many years was donated to St. Bernard Convent. In 1967 the old convent was torn down and a new home for the Sisters built.

Some of the names of the parishioners of Loretto Sacred Heart Church were Sandschult, Foppe, Sanderell, Dischler, Hunt, Filt, Tremer, Hollander, Hessel, Von Boemmel, Schemer, Augustin, Wiggerman, Koelsch, Henkel, Beckman, Meister, Zurline, Lamprecht, Fleischman, Zettler, Hessell, Rigling, Simbeck, Kramer, Scheidt, Krick, Dain, Meiers, Kessler, Veith, Markus, and Ast.

While taking care of the church, Father Heuser began purchasing land about five miles south of Loretto, in all approximately 4,800 acres. In the fall of 1872, Father Heuser and the members of the congregation built a frame church which was named St. Joseph, and subsequently the town became known as St. Joseph too. St. Joseph Cemetery was established north of the church in the early 1870s.

When Father Paul Rohjans came to the parish in 1882, he proceeded to build a larger church to replace the frame one. The parish provided the labor for building this structure. First the wooded area where the church was to be built had to be cleared, then trenches were dug and rock quarried and hauled to the site. The foundation under the stone altar (now covered with wood) is six feet by ten feet, which met the requirements for a consecrated church. The first corner stone was laid March 19, 1883. The twenty-eight inch thick walls are made of mortar and plaster inside and outside, which have never had to be repaired. White sand was hauled from Shoal Creek at Wayland Springs for this purpose.

The chalice, sanctuary lamps, and altar are among the many items that were donated to the church by parishioners. The original altar was replaced by a Gothic altar obtained from St. Peter's in Memphis when it was renovated in 1917. In the late 1950s, the congregation decided to replace the Gothic altar with one designed like the original. When Father Sliemers was pastor between 1914 and 1934, he used his artistic talents to decorate the church with many beautiful murals. The communion railings, which have been removed in many Catholic churches, still remain in the St. Joseph Church. They are made of three woods - cherry, oak, and walnut. The stained glass windows were imported from Munich, Germany, and donated by various families.

St. Joseph Church has the distinction of being the only consecrated church in Tennessee. It is also the oldest Catholic church still remaining in Lawrence County. All churches are blessed before being used for divine services, but consecration, a rare and more solemn form of dedication, is restricted to comparatively few churches. Only those churches which are built of stone or other permanent materials with assurance that they will remain in permanent use can be consecrated. Also, the land and building must be entirely free of all debt.

The completion of this church was due largely to the dedication and hard work of Father Paul Rohjans. Besides doing a lot of the manual labor, he was responsible for raising the money to purchase needed materials. When he found that his parishioners could not supply all the funds to complete the church, he solicited funds from his friends in the north. Unfortunately Father Rohjans was only able to enjoy the church for about a year before he contracted typhoid fever and died. He is buried under the floor of the church with a flat stone marker covering his grave.

Some of the early settlers were Beyke, Sandrell, Beumer, Buffler, Kaup, Henkel, Kersteins, Schoepper, Kobus, Kress, Meyer, Pottkotter, Harp, and Volderdunk. Others who came later were Reischman, Toebbe, Hollman, Havercamp, Evers, Taphorn, Bernauer, Thein, Hemmen, Kluesner and Berendsen.

St. Mary's, or Third Settlement as it was called earlier, was the third Catholic settlement in southern Lawrence County about five miles southeast of Loretto. A combined building for church and school was built of logs. Schooling was very limited at the time with only the very basic fundamentals being taught. Later the school term was lengthened.

A frame church was built and dedicated in the early 1900s. No Sunday services were conducted, but Mass was held once or twice a week. The priest from Loretto was in charge of this church along with St. Joseph Church, therefore only a few services could be held at each church. When the church was discontinued, it was torn down and rebuilt on Church Street in Loretto as a residence.

A cemetery was located in the church yard. Although some families had their loved ones re-interred in the Loretto Catholic Cemetery, several graves remain there today.

Names associated with St. Mary's were Patt, Bergob, Fredebeil, Gieske, Luke, Earhart, King, Long, Brenning, Feltman, Niedergeses, Ricketts, Cooling, Kersteins. Some of these families later moved to Loretto.

In each of the communities where Catholic churches were formed, schools and cemeteries were also established. This seems to be the case whereever German Catholic families settled throughout the United States. The three remaining Catholic churches are all listed on the National Register, four of the cemeteries still remain with three of them still in use, and two of the churches still have parochial schools through the eigth grade.

These German Catholics that were so different in their customs and religion when first coming to Lawrence County have definitely left their mark. Some moved on to other places, but most remained and have prospered by either having successful businesses or farming.

Sources of Information:

St. Joseph Catholic Church 1885-1985 by parishioners.

Lawrenceburg Sacred Heart Catholic Church 1887-1987 by parishioners.

Loretto Sacred Heart Church 1872-1972 by parishioners.

"As I Remember and As I Have Been Told, Related to Estha Cole by Joe Gieske," Lawrence County Historical Society Bulletin, August, 1981.

Tennessee Revisited - New Einsiedeln 1874-1893 by Sister Mary Linux Bax and Sister Eileen Tomlinson of the Nashville Dicoese.

The Catholic Church in Lawrence County, TN by Father Joseph H. Buse.

1880 through 1910 Lawrence County Census Records.

Author's Personal Knowledge.

Updated June 24, 2020

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