Tag Archives: nostalgia

A Treasure in Stained Glass

April 16, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sometime around 1904, when Omaha Bishop Richard Scannell visited Europe to invite young men to serve as priests among the German-American members of the Omaha diocese, the Rev. Bernard Sinne was among those who responded.

Sinne was born Dec. 9, 1878, in Elsen, Westphalia. He was ordained to the priesthood May 5, 1904, in Freiburg. The following August, Sinne was appointed pastor of St. Mary Magdalene Church in Omaha. He was 27 years old and served as pastor for 57 years.

Before Sinne left Germany for Omaha, he was told by his bishop that he was “a goat to go to Omaha, where he would have to ride horseback all day and sleep in an Indian tent all night.” Sinne ended up in Omaha doing neither.

What Sinne did do was build and preserve a church that holds the most beautiful stained glass windows in Omaha, windows from the studios of Franz Mayer in Munich, Germany.

There is no other church in Omaha, no other church in the state of Nebraska, and probably no other church in the United States that has such a fine collection of stained glass as does St. Mary Magdalene at 19th and Dodge streets. This church could be considered the Sistine Chapel of stained glass in the United States.

It wasn’t an easy thing to do, to keep St. Mary Magdalene Church above ground. In the 1920s, the city administration decided to lower Dodge Street because the incline was too great. The church was then “built down” to accommodate the new street level.

After building the church down and turning the basement into the main level, Sinne ordered a new set of windows from the Franz Mayer company for the new main level.

In 1926, Sinne was honored for his work lowering the church and his many years of service at St. Mary Magdalene. At the ceremony, he admitted that the cutting down of Dodge Street’s hill “was the greatest cross that ever visited me. But with your assistance, we have been able to bear the heavy expense [estimated to be $150,000].”

There are other churches in the United States that have stained glass windows from the Franz Mayer studios, but none have two full sets, spanning a generation, that display the work of artisans from Munich so well.

Ironically, representatives of the Franz Mayer company had forgotten about their windows in Omaha. It seems that the destruction brought about by two world wars had devastated the company’s records. It was only after an inquiry was made about the “Good Samaritan on the Battlefield” window did they search their remaining records. To their surprise, they realized they had shipped stained glass to Omaha in the 1930s.

Of all the windows in the church, the “Good Samaritan on the Battlefield” is probably the most unusual. This window was installed between the two world wars, at a time when German immigrants to Omaha were involved in a difficult question of identity—were they Americans or were they Germans?

With Hitler on the rise in Germany, the question of patriotism took on new meaning for both  Sinne and his many German parishioners. In the battle scene depicted in the Good Samaritan window, we see written in Latin, “Pro Deus et Patria.” For God and Country.

The Good Samaritan window is also significant because, while working with a representative of the present-day Franz Mayer company, the church discovered the original cartoon for the window design.

Other windows in the church also have stories to tell. The window that depicts the Evangelist Luke bears a dedication to the contractor Benno Kunkel, who built the present church for $40,000.

As the German community in Omaha moved west into St. Joseph’s parish and the bishops were working to build St. Cecilia Cathedral, Sinne quietly made St. Mary Magdalene Church into an Omaha artistic treasure. In so doing, he also left us with some mysteries.

Why is there no window depicting the crucifixion at St. Mary Magdalene? Most Catholic churches have a window that shows the crucifixion. Instead, opposite each other in the church, windows depict the birth and resurrection of Jesus. Furthermore why in a church named after St. Mary Magdalene, is there no window dedicated to her? Instead, there are two windows dedicated to St. Cecilia.

What will be the future of this Nebraska treasure of stained glass? In a city that often seems dead set on demolishing its past and replacing it with more glass and steel boxes, the future does not look bright for these historic windows or the church.

Many of the windows are now more than 100 years old and are in need of repair. Parts of some windows are missing. The church itself needs extensive repair, and just like a masterpiece by Rembrandt that has an elegant frame around it, so the building that holds these stained glass treasures has to become the elegant frame that holds the windows up.

We owe it to the memory of Sinne that the art treasure he has given Omaha be preserved and restored. Some men build a cathedral on a hill to demonstrate their power, other men build a church (and decorate with windows from the Franz Mayer company) to show their love.

Researching the Windows

The gravel walk to the Douglas County Historical Society is strewn with red maple leaves. It is early in a dry November. Already, the Crook House next door to the society library is decorated with Christmas garlands.

Then Monsignor Sinne had given an interview to the Greater Omaha Historical Society in 1959. The interview was conducted in the rectory at St. Mary Magdalene Church. That tape is now in the possession of the Douglas Historical Society, and I am on my way to hear it. The interview was conducted by the Rev. Henry Casper, S.J., author of the History of the Catholic Church in Nebraska, and an unidentified woman.

The old tape player in the historical society’s listening room is covered in dust. Sinne’s voice, the voice of an older man, sounds dusty, too. He was 83 years old at the time of the interview.

On the tape, which breaks up from time to time, Sinne relates his experiences as a young man and new pastor in Omaha. You can still hear a German accent in his voice. In the interview, he admits that when he came to Omaha his first impression of the city was seeing all the beer signs. When asked about that, he remarked, “Lord in heaven!”

We learn from the tapes that Leo A. Daly was one of the architects of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. The Leo A Daly company still works in Omaha today (and maintains its international headquarters in the city). After getting an architect, the monsignor went to Chicago to get a construction firm. He claims, all together, the work on the chapel cost $275,000.

All in all, the taped interview does not reveal much about the windows at St. Mary Magdalene. But the oral history does shed light on the monsignor’s personal background. He came from a wealthy German family. This may account for where the money came from to decorate the church and buy the windows.

It’s disheartening to realize that the interview recording—which lasts more than an hour—does not answer questions we would like to ask Sinne. At the end of the tape, I realize this voice from the past is also a voice from another world.

Then, there comes a surprise. Besides the two cassette tapes, the Historical Society has a manila folder with newspaper clippings about Sinne. Mixed up among the yellowed clippings is a copy of a short article from the World-Herald on Thursday, Aug. 6, 1914. The article says that Sinne had three brothers: Two of them were in the German army, to be posted to Cologne, no doubt preparing to fight in WWI. The third brother was in the United States and “responding to the reserves call.”

The tape rewinds. The monsignor’s voice sounds weary. I pack the laptop and sling my backpack over a shoulder. The old door to the library creeks open as I leave and walk down the wooden steps. I kick at fallen red maple leaves on the way to my car.

Did it happen that Sinne’s brothers fought on different sides during WWI? Could this be the reason for the war memorial window, for the Good Samaritan on the Battlefield? Could it be that Sinne had this window installed to remember his brothers? More unanswered questions.

The late afternoon sunlight is brilliant while casting long shadows. This glow of a dwindling autumn holds not the promise of spring. It lends its light only a short while.

Robert Klein Engler is a member of St. Mary Magdalene parish and works part-time at Joslyn Art Museum. He holds degrees from the University of Illinois-Urbana and the University of Chicago Divinity School. Visit archomaha.org for more information.

“The Good Samaritan on the Battlefield”

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of 60 Plus.

Nostalgia: Ain’t What it Used to Be

April 17, 2015 by

Originally published in May/June 2015 edition of 60-Plus in Omaha.

Peony Park was where you danced indoors in the Royal Terrace Ballroom and under the stars in the Royal Grove.

Remember meeting the amusement park’s mascot, Peony the Skunk? (Some people called her “Stinky.”) Or playing Dodgem? Or KOIL Radio’s dance party in the Royal Grove? Or splashing in the Peony Park swimming pool?

You have been around at least 50 years if you remember never seeing women on the Omaha City Council. Betty Abbott blazed the way in 1965. Of course, Omaha finally has its first woman mayor. And it only took 160 years after the city’s founding.

Your first escalator ride was at the downtown Brandeis store on what was the city’s first escalator.

Come to think of it, you remember when there was an actual Brandeis store, a place where shopping became a social event.

Younkers’ stores were called Kilpatrick’s.

Your “health club” was a YWCA or YMCA.

And the YWCA was actually called the YWCA, not the Women’s Center for Advancement.

Horses, not college students, were housed in the Ak-Sar-Ben area. The college students are only slightly less messy than the horses were.

Ak-Sar-Ben horse racing was a live video game you played before there were video games.

Warren Buffett was yet to make his first billion. Remember when you could afford to buy a share of Berkshire Hathaway?

The idea of “Omaha” extended only about as far as 90th Street. Today, that’s more like midtown.

The Henry Doorly Zoo was called Riverview Park. There was a lone, forlorn bear and two moose.

The sprawling University of Nebraska-Omaha was then the smaller University of Omaha, called disparagingly by some “West Dodge High.”

Remember when Elkhorn was a city? Oh, wait…that wasn’t so very long ago!

iStock_000010336357_Large

Nostalgia

March 9, 2015 by

Originally published in March/April 2015 Omaha Magazine

So an old friend said to me, “I used to like living in Omaha, but now it’s too big.”

Putting aside for the moment the imprecise nature of what “big” is exactly, I do get it. When I got here in 1967, the town’s west side ended at 79th Street. Omaha was referred to proudly as a “15-minute town.” You could get anywhere in 15 minutes. I remember the shift to “a 20 minute town.” Now I think we may have crept up to the half hour mark. But my friend’s problem isn’t distance, or traffic, or sprawl—he’s simply stuck in the past.

It’s impossible to avoid nostalgia.

Oh, there was a day when nostalgia had a bad name, but that was a long time ago, back when we all looked to the future for comfort. (Yes, I do plan to write about irony in my next column.) But back to the future—what went wrong with that?

For a start, every election we’d hear about how “our children are our future.” Now that seems to be an obvious platitude…unless those of us who’ve had children stopped to think for a second about a world run by our kids. When we considered the implications of that seemingly benign premise, the prospect filled us with a deeply felt sense of doom. None of us want to admit it, but the truth is that parents know at a very primal level, despite all of the love and pride we have for our gifted offspring, that these benighted little creatures have no brains.

We’ve observed the tykes at close range over a significant period of time. We’ve observed behaviors that give us cause to examine their skulls for leaks. On top of that we remember when we were “the future.” Look where that got us.

So this whole “future” thing makes us quake in our boots—or, tremble in our Birkenstocks if that is the lifestyle we chose back when we were vacant-minded adolescents.

I loved Popular Science magazine with its glossy, Technicolor artist renderings of flying cars full of happy nuclear families jetting out of the towering spires of some utopian megapolis into the peaceful green countryside where shiny robots milked the farmer’s cows and fed his bright pink pigs. The future? Well, I’ve lived in big cities and I’ve worked on farms. I know there are very few sparkly spires, pink pigs, or perfect families, and there sure as heck aren’t any flying cars.

So we gave up on the future. And that left us only the past—nostalgia.

We long for that fabled 15-minute city, part of some Golden Age, enlightened, peaceful, stable. These yearnings comfort us only so long as we don’t read history, research the ancestral tree, or recall that when we could get around town in a quarter hour, there was really nowhere to go.

For me, the final straw regarding the past occurred when it came to my attention recently that my days on rock radio were part of someone’s idyllic past. “Remember when Otis and Diver had that big election party at Peony Park?”

Oh, the horror! I had become nostalgia personified. The revelation had the same impact as waking up to discover I was a large cockroach. Thank you very much, Franz Kafka.

The future is scary, the past is a dream, and we are left in the unexpected position of having to choose the present…today…the now.

So, my humble suggestion, get in the car and go to Fontenelle Forest. Wander down the walkway to the trails and head down towards the river. Find a spot in the trees and sit down on an old stump. Listen. That’s the now welcoming you.

From my house the drive is exactly 29 minutes.

Otis XII’s newest book, Tales of the Master: The Book of Stone will be released this summer by Grief Illustrated Press.

iStock_000018319401_Double

Winter Is Coming

December 2, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The day after Christmas 2011 coincided with the eight-year anniversary of the day Matt and Kim Mixan first met. At the skating rink on 10th and Howard streets, a small group of their friends quietly encouraged Matt to go through with the afternoon’s plan: proposing to Kim. “It was something I’d been wanting to do for years,” he explains. “I’d always planned that spot, that day, that event, for three years in a row, and it never panned out.”

“At lunch, he was downing the margaritas,” Kim recalls. “I was like, what is going on?” The nerves didn’t go away. It took several laps around the crowded rink and Kim wanting to stop due to bruised ankles from the skates before Matt coaxed her to the center of the ice. With their friends surrounding them, he got down on one knee and said, “I couldn’t think of a better place to do this than on our eight-year anniversary with people who love us.” Laughing, Kim asked a couple times if he was serious, then answered, “Yeah, okay!”

Of course, it’s not strictly necessary to be prepared with that level of commitment before enjoying the ConAgra Foods Ice Skating Rink, and you don’t have to plan for three years. As of Sat., Dec. 14, all that’s really required is a five-dollar bill for admission and skates, because who has those? On the weekends, night owls and lovebirds alike can skate till midnight. Wear an elf hat and feel good about yourself, because 100 percent of proceeds go to Food Bank for the Heartland. The donations translated into 1.3 million meals last year, according to event manager Vic Gutman of Vic Gutman & Associates.

Still, the rink’s varying hours can get a little tricky to keep in mind. If you just want to soak up some holiday cheer already, Downtown’s Holiday Lights Festival is in full swing from Thanksgiving evening until about a week after the New Year. What that means in English is the trees along the Gene Leahy Mall are lit by more than a million fairy lights every night. As are six blocks of 24th Street in North Omaha. And six blocks of 24th Street in South Omaha. Soak up even more nostalgia and stop by the Mall around 7 p.m. on Saturdays. Choral groups, ranging from youth to professional, will regale passersby with holiday tunes for an hour.

But sometimes standing around admiring sparkling lights isn’t that appealing because, you know, winter. It’s cold. Get thee to Beer Corner USA on 36th and Farnam streets for Holiday Beerfest. This is a one-time deal on Sat., Dec. 7, and it’s from 1–5 p.m. (drinking in the afternoon? Psh, it’s the holidays. Also, good prep for long-planned proposals, apparently). The seasonal-brew-sampling fest has been going on for the past seven years, so get your tickets early ($22 in advance, $27 at the door) and drink your way through 100 or so winter brews and three separate bars: Crescent Moon, Huber-Haus, and Max and Joe’s. “Winter beers,” explains Michael Perdue, manager of the attached bottle shop, Beertopia, “are darker, use more roasted malt, and there might be some spice as well—cinnamon, cardamom. We’ll have a lot of porters, stouts, some strong English ales, too.”

What is beer without a little snack? The Old Market Candy Shop officially has its annual offering of pumpkin pie fudge. Owner Jeff Jorgensen promises that egg nog fudge is not far behind. Sometimes they have ribbon candy too, but don’t hold your breath. It may or may not be available when you go. Of course, right next door to the Candy Shop is Downtown’s permanent homage to Christmas, Tannenbaum Christmas Shop, also owned by Jorgensen.

Consider working off the chocolate with an amble along Farnam Street near 33rd. The shop windows at Midtown Crossing are decorated once again for Miracle on Farnam, a series of intricate holiday displays. More than 20 sponsors have designed these nostalgia-inducing, shadow-box-like tableaus. The windows housing animated pieces in particular call to mind postcards of old-fashioned toy shop windows decked out for the season.

It makes for quite a romantic stroll in the evening, by the way. No ice skates required. And let’s be real, you don’t want to be that guy who stole someone else’s proposal technique anyway.