Note: Fr. John Bernard Weber - The Spirit of St. Mary's In 1897 the joy in the hearts of St. Mary's parishioners was turned to sadness when their beloved Father Weixelberger was called to his Heavenly Home only two weeks after all the excitement of having the Bishop here to dedicate the new wooded frame church. Preparations for the Bishop's visit left Father completely exhausted and little did he know that when he went to bed he would never be able to complete all his plans he had for his parish. His death was a great shock to his people. After the grief-stricken parishioners were used to the idea that their pioneer priest was gone forever, they started to wonder who would come to replace him. The people became restless waiting but they did not realize the problem the Bishop was having due to the shortage of priests in the diocese, and because of the fact that he had to find one who had a thorough knowledge of the German language for this parish of 125 families, predominately German. By the middle of January 1897, it became known that Bishop O'Gorman had appointed a young priest from Deadwood, SD as the new pastor of St. Mary's parish. He was unknown in Salem, but it was said that he was young and very energetic and intensely devoted to the Church. His name was Weber and it was rumored that he was a master of the German language. On the 24th of the month, the coldest day of the year, the new priest arrived in Salem from Sioux Falls. He was a little man who weighed scarcely 150 pounds, but there was a look of quiet determination in his face and a buoyancy in his step which indicated a reserve of energy out of proportion to this physical size. He brought with him a pet canary, a violin, and a gold headed cane. No bells announced the arrival of the new pastor; no band played a welcome for him. Quietly he slipped into town; before anyone knew it he had taken possession of the rectory. Father Bernard Weber had arrived and for the next 60 years he was destined to exercise a greater influence in the community than any one man who has ever lived in Salem. It usually requires some time for a priest to become acquainted in a new parish, but young Father Weber learned to know his people in a short time. John Bernard Weber was born November 6, 1869 to Ludwig Weber and Mark Recker at Freckenhorst, Westphalia, Germany. He attended grade school there and high school in a nearby town of Wahrendorf. He left his home land and gave his life for souls in a strange land. He arrived in this country on May 5, 1887 and stayed for awhile with Father Joseph Meckel in Highland, Illinois, to study the language. In September of the same year he enrolled in St. Francis Seminary, Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he took his philosophical and theological studies. On June 24, 1892 Bishop Otto Zarletti of St. Cloud raised J. Bernard Weber to the sublime dignity of Christ's priesthood. His first assignment was the Black Hills of South Dakota. He also served isolated communities in the area until he was sent to Salem, South Dakota. He began his work in Salem by changing the plans for erecting the new church on the North Main Street site. By September he had men of the parish busy building a barn to shelter the horses he used in making his many parish calls. Using this form of transportation, he went from house to house soliciting funds and organizing committees to take charge of the work. The work began in January as the winter that year was very mild. Father Weber was fortunate as the farmers in his congregation shared his enthusiasm for improving the parish and therefore they brought in their teams and donated their labor. If the young priest noticed the boys lagging in their work he often sent one of them after a few pails of beer to restore the morale. He know that a little refreshment now and then kept the workmen happy and the work progressed more rapidly. On July 4, 1898 under the diligent supervision of Father Bernard Weber, the cornerstone of the present church was laid. It took a little prodding on the pastor's part to keep the men working the day after the big celebration, but he insisted there would be no loafing. He was determined to have the building enclosed before winter, and that he did. As a boy, Father Weber had been trained in music. He could sing exceedingly well, and his technique as a violinist was advanced well beyond mere errant adventures on a fiddle. His early musical training may have cast a pleasant reflection on his later way of living and performing his work as a priest. He seemed to be guided by a well known rubric, "festina lente", meaning "make haste slowly". Having built a church, his mind next turned to the fulfillment of an even greater ambition, the building of a school. For the time being he was willing to make haste slowly, so that the parish would not be encumbered with too great a financial burden, so he converted the old church into a school. He began a practice, which he never abandoned, of visiting the school daily to instruct the children in religion. He was determined to have the children grow up with a good understanding of their precious faith, and therefore the used methods of discipline that were unique. It is evident today that his efforts were not in vain. In less than ten years after that cold day in January when Father Weber arrived in Salem, a church and school had been built and the parish was debt free. The pastor and his people were justly proud of their accomplishments. Some of the parishioners favored the building of a new rectory but the pastor opposed the idea saying that he was satisfied to go on living in the old house, if a new needed improvements were added. After the new school was completed, the carpenters moved their tools and work benches over to the rectory to make the only improvements which Father Weber ever promoted to the interest of his own comfort. Six years after that the parish was again debt free. One June 26, 1918 Father Weber celebrated his silver jubilee with an entire day filled with festivities for young and old. Among the guests for the gala affair were Father P.N. Scheier, the first young man of the parish to enter the priesthood, and thirteen Sisters from the Convent of St. Francis who had grown to young womanhood in St. Mary's Parish. There were two banquets that day and at each one the jubilarian spoke of his untiring interest in the parish school, and the joy that it brought to him. He thanked his people for their cooperation in the past, and asked them to continue working with him in the future for the betterment of the parish. When he concluded his remarks the applause was loud and long. The people of the parish loved him and rejoiced with him on the occasion of his jubilee. Shortly after the arrival of Bishop Mahoney to the Sioux Falls Diocese, he announced that the Holy Father desired to honor Father Weber for his outstanding work in the diocese and raised him to rank of Domestic Prelate, with the title of Right Reverend Monsignor. On January 16, 1923 the Bishop came to Salem for the investure of the new Monsignor. Priests from every part of the diocese came to Salem to share the joy which the people of St. Mary's Parish felt in the honor which was being conferred on their pastor. Before the Solemn High Mass was offered, Bishop Mahoney invested Monsignor Weber in the Roman Purple robes of his rank. The Bishop paid high tribute to Monsignor Weber for his splendid work. He also explained that the honor conferred upon him made him a member of the Papal Household, and that in Rome those who enjoyed that distinction were given special privileges. The Bishop's sermon delighted the people, and increased the pride which they had always felt in their good Pastor. It was soon evident to all that the rank of Domestic Prelate and the office of Vicar General, to which Bishop Mahoney had also appointed him, would produce no change in Monsignor Weber. When the guests departed he laid aside the purple robes of his rank and let it be known to those about him that he did not wish to be addressed as "Monsignor" but preferred the more endearing title of "Father" by which he had always been known. He had always been a father to his people and gave fatherly advice whenever it was needed. With determination to give to his young people the finest possible Catholic training and education, St. Mary's High School began its existence in September of 1928. During those trying years of drought and depression, no one made more sacrifices or expended greater efforts than the pastor of the parish. In spite of his advanced years, he went out to other parishes preaching Forty Hour Devotion sermons and using the money he so earned to support the school. On several occasions he made trips to other states to solicit funds for the school from Catholics who were more blessed with the goods of the world. Each year he contributed his salary to the parish so that the high school could be kept open although many were advising him to close the school. Only a man striving for an ideal could find it possible to make the sacrifices which Father Weber made for his parish. In 1937 he inaugurated the state basketball tournament for Catholic High Schools and when the Catholic High School Association was formed the following year in South Dakota, he was named its first president. Father Weber served under the guidance of Bishop Martin Marty of Dakota Territory, Bishop O'Gorman, Bishop Mahoney, Bishop Brady and even for a while under Bishop Lambert A. Hoch. In 1952 Bishop Brady announced that Monsignor Weber had been made Protonotary Apostolic in recognition of his 60 years of priesthood in the Sioux Falls Diocese. The dignity granted him certain privileges similar to those of bishops - that is to celebrate pontifical Mass, to use the mitre, to wear the pectoral cross and ring at such Masses and to have a certain rank of special honor among the clergy. The new honor for Monsignor Weber was contained in an official degree from Pope Pius XII and signed at the Vatican. At this time Salem also celebrated the pastor's 60th anniversary to the priesthood. At the ripe old age of 83, just four years before his retirement, Father Weber supervised the building of the present rectory. Ward Nelson of Salem was the contractor for the job and much volunteer work was done by the parishioners. Father knew that he would not be living in the house very long, but he wanted it built for the priest that would take his place. Because of the infirmities of old age, Father Weber resigned his pastorate in June 1956. At this time he was the oldest active priest in the Sioux Falls Diocese, and the only one who had ever been given the Papal honor of Protonatary Apostolic. Fr. B. Weber administered 2047 Baptisms and performed 533 marriages in the years he served our parish. The first baby baptized by Father Weber was Josephine Kathryn Kolbeck, the daughter of Joe and Anna (Bornhorst) Kolbeck on January 27, 1897. The last baptism he administered was Mike Eichacker on March 18, 1956. The first marriage he officiated at united Henry Reif and Sophie Heying on November 9, 1897. The last wedding ceremony he performed united Dorothy Wingen and Mike Townsend on January 30, 1956. In the later months of his life, Msgr. Weber lived in the home of his niece Francis Weber and her husband Steve Weber on a farm northeast of Salem. On December 11, 1956 he was called to his eternal reward and on December 15, 1956 he was laid to rest on the prairie amidst the people for whom he spent his life. Father U.J. Rodenbur was celebrant of the Mass with Reverend Henry Kolbeck, deacon, and Reverend P.C. Conway subdeacon. He also delivered the sermon for the occasion. Prior to the day of the funeral, his body remained in the church and his people were honor guards. They kept a twenty-four hour vigil each day. This was their last chance to show their respect to a man who worked do diligently to keep them on the straight and narrow path. To many, the words of the liturgy "Behold a great priest who is his day pleased God..." filled the mind and the heart. Remember the soul of Monsignor Weber to the mercy of His great High Priest. May he rest in peace.
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