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