DUBUQUE - Even though a ghost town, faith is still alive in Dubuque, Kansas.
The paved road here ends at St. Catherine's Catholic Church.
The little town here either burned down or was torn down years ago, said 81-year-old Vince Dolecheck, whose pioneering ancestors settled here in the late 1800s.
Yet, for generations after the town disappeared, the alluring stone church continues to bring the farming community together.
It doesn't matter that the Dodge City Diocese closed the country parish in 1997, largely due to a shrinking farm population, along with a shortage of priests. It doesn't matter that weekly masses are no more.
Each April, the community gathers again - a couple hundred people with a connection to St. Catherine's. They celebrate mass together. Then they dine together in a potluck meal in the nearby parish center - swapping memories of the past.
And for a few fleeting moments, little Dubuque - with its church, cemetery and a few parish buildings - becomes a vibrant city again.
"This was a community," said Dolecheck, an area farmer who recalls the days of attending school here, New Years' dances and weddings. "It's just nice to go back."
Dubuque was never a boom town.
Yet, as pioneers were settling the west - including Kansas, soon after the Civil War, towns were established every 10 or so miles. With settlement in this area that teeters the Barton and Russell County line, a community center was soon established.
Dubuque from the beginning was a community of mixed nationalities. Polish were the first to arrive, followed by Volga Germans, Bohemians and Irish began to settle the area - some of them hailing from Dubuque, Iowa - hence the town's name, according to the St. Catherine's Parish history book.
N.R. Weber said his great grandparents, Mathias and Anna Weber, came to the area from Dubuque, Iowa, in the late 1870s by wagon - like many of the settlers here - taking up 160 acres through the federal Homestead Act.
But promise of free land from the government didn't make survival any easier.
What they did have, however, was faith.
As soon as they had sod homes over their heads, they began working on a church.
The first mass was celebrated in the Murray home in October 1879. Eventually, settlers began to build a church.
Nicholas Weber started a store. A post office opened in 1879. The town of Dubuque sat on the Russell County line.
With the growing settlement, a second, bigger wood-frame church was built. However, soon, the congregation outgrew that one, as well, but parishioners were divided on where to put it.
But Nicholas Weber, owner of the town's sole general store, saw a potential business venture by keeping the church close to his establishment, N.R. Weber said. Thus, his great uncle donated the land in Barton County near the store for a new church.
A church slowly rises
Faith continued to blossom here, despite a string of poor wheat crops that cut into the finances of the parish's farm families.
It just meant the new church would be built slowly.
Work on the church began in 1901 and took six years to complete - with everyone lending a hand, according to the history book.
"Each family was required to bring 10 loads of rocks," said Dana Weber, whose husband, N.R. grew up in the parish.
By 1907, the current church burned to the ground, causing the congregation to move into the church before it was completely finished.
They dedicated it Nov. 12, 1907.
From then on, the church became the area's focal point - standing at 120.5 feet high from ground to the top of the steeple, said N.R. Weber.
For a few years after the fire, the carpenter's shed on the parish grounds was turned into a school. In 1920, a new school and convent were built, according to the parish history.
The book recounts the many marriages, baptisms and priests, along with the many Dominican sisters who were stationed and lived at the nearby school.
Vince Dolecheck recalls those days - of dances and picnics. He attended school there from third through the eighth grade.
It was a small school, he said, adding in eighth grade, "I was the only one in my graduating class."
Faith still here
Some who drive through here could say Dubuque's growth and prosperity has long blown by.
The post office closed in 1909, according to the Kansas State Historical Society. Vince Dolecheck recalls the store and tavern while growing up, but also remembers it burning down.
For a while, all that was left was the church and school. But in 1966, the school saw its last graduating eighth-grade class. In 1967, the last group of first through sixth graders traipsed out the doors.
The school was eventually torn down, N.R. Weber said.
Then, in 1997, the diocese closed a number of small rural parishes, including St. Catherine's.
But those here in the community will tell you that faith and community still lingers at the end of this paved road in Barton County. You can find it in the well-kept cemetery with a church towering above it - it's steeple clock still ticking.
And, you can find it inside the church - with its ornate statuary, glass-colored windows and detailed alter.
On this evening, Dave Dolecheck, Gerald Staudinger and N.R. and Dana Weber reminisced.
Dave, Gerald and N.R. were all baptized here. They attended school here. They sat in the confessional and divulged sins. They were members here until the day it closed.
"This was the social fabric that kept the community together," said Staudinger.
They, along with other longstanding families, are the keepers of the church. And all three of the men serve on the cemetery board. Farming in the area, they also check on it every time they drive by. A house on the property is rented out.
There aren't weddings here anymore, but there are still funerals, said Dana Weber.
They also have their annual mass, which this year is April 10.
People come back, even if they don't live in the area, to attend the services, said Dana Weber. Even her own children come back for the mass and dinner.
"It's not just a church it is a social spot," said Weber, adding the annual service "is done in the gesture of community and bringing back our heritage."
Vince Dolecheck added he and his wife, Alice, look forward to the day each year.
"It's just nice to go back," he said. "The thing that brings people back is the people - you get to see a lot of people who used to attend here."