The three parishes that comprise the Catholic Church of Barber County--St. John the Apostle in Kiowa, Holy Rosary in Medicine Lodge, and St. Boniface in Sharon--have their own unique histories but also share one intertwined from their beginnings.
Local history records Kiowa as the site of the first Catholic Mass officially held in Barber County; it was celebrated on January 28, 1885 by Father Bernard Schmiehausen, pastor of Mary, Help of Christians church in Newton. This first Mass most likely took place in a private home, but by 1886 Mass was somewhat regularly celebrated in the Commercial House hotel, owned by the Craven family who were members of the congregation. In those earliest days the sacramental care of the Catholic community at Kiowa was assigned at various times to priests from Wellington and Danville.
In 1899 the Kiowa congregation built the first Catholic Church in Barber County. The first Mass in the new St. John the Apostle church took place on July 28, 1899, although the church was not officially dedicated until nearly four years later on June 8, 1903. Kiowa did not yet have a resident pastor, however, and Mass was only celebrated monthly at first. From 1909 to 1916 Father Lombardi, resident pastor of the new and thriving St. Boniface parish in Sharon, also served St. John the Apostle. In 1916 pastoral responsibility for Kiowa was returned to Danville until 1934, when it was transferred to the pastor of Sacred Heart in Anthony, Kansas.
In 1940 St. John the Apostle was assigned its first resident pastor, Father John Vesecky, who served the congregation at Kiowa for several years. During his pastorate St. John built the current Spanish style church in 1949. It was dedicated by Bishop Mark Carroll of Wichita on August 28, 1949. In 2006, St. John completed a major renovation of the church, and in 2013 a new brick parish hall, complete with a commercial-style kitchen, was constructed and dedicated.
The earliest history of the Catholic Church in Medicine Lodge likely reaches back to 1867 when Franciscan missionaries are believed to have been present at the signing of peace treaties between five Plains Indian tribes and the U.S. government. The city was first officially recorded as a mission station in 1873, but was not listed again until a dozen years later in 1885. The first reliably recorded Mass was celebrated that year by Father Bitters of Wellington in the home of Charles and Elizabeth Rudolph (grandparents of lifelong parishioner Charles Rankin); later on Mass was celebrated in an office building in town. Priests from several parishes served the small Catholic community in Medicine Lodge until 1909, when Father Lombardi of St. Boniface regularly began attending the Medicine Lodge congregation as well as the flocks in Sharon and Kiowa. He appears to have been the first pastor officially assigned to serve all three Barber County parishes. This situation continued for eight years until the mission at Medicine Lodge was discontinued in 1917 and its congregation officially became part of St. Boniface.
Medicine Lodge was without a Catholic church for the next 35 years. Finally, in early 1952 Bishop Franz of the brand new Diocese of Dodge City and Father Birzer of St. Boniface began the process of organizing a parish for the 23 Catholic families of Medicine Lodge. At first Mass was celebrated in rented space on Main Street while a committee worked on plans for acquiring land and constructing a church for the new parish. The name Holy Rosary was chosen and credited largely to Father Birzer and his well-known devotion to the Rosary.
The church was completed in late 1953, and on December 20 the first Mass at Holy Rosary's new church was celebrated by Father Jerasa, resident pastor of St. John the Apostle. Bishop John B. Franz of Dodge City formally dedicated the church six months later on May 23, 1954, and for several years thereafter Father Jerasa served as pastor of both Holy Rosary and St. John.
In 1960 Holy Rosary welcomed its first resident pastor, Father Bernard Groome, and he moved into a newly constructed rectory in 1961. The parish continued to grow and develop, and a little over 30 years later the congregation of Holy Rosary discerned the need for a larger church. On May 23, 1999, groundbreaking for the current church and parish hall occurred 45 years to the day after the dedication of the original church. Father Anthony Suellentrop was resident pastor at the time, and the new church was dedicated by Bishop Ronald Gilmore on February 20, 2000. The original church was renovated into classrooms for the parish school of religion.
Finally, St. Boniface of Sharon, the youngest but largest Catholic parish in Barber County, originated when several German Catholic farm families from Sedgwick County began settling in the Sharon Valley in March of 1904. In early 1905 Father Maloney of Danville began coming to Sharon about once a month to celebrate Mass in the home of Otto and Mary Winter when he traveled west to serve the mission stations at Kiowa and Medicine Lodge.
Most of the first Catholics at Sharon were German speaking, so St. Boniface was a natural choice for the patron and name of their new church. Mr. Winter and other lay leaders of St. Boniface worked diligently to grow the parish and bring other Catholic families to the area. They demonstrated their deep commitment to church and community with their creation of a Catholic land buying company to induce other Catholics to acquire farms and businesses in the Sharon area, and their dedication contributed to the rapid growth of the parish and its school.
After only two years the parish acquired lots and constructed a large white frame church, dedicated by Bishop J. Hennessy of Wichita on October 13, 1906. A new parochial school opened in 1917 under the direction of Dominican sisters from Great Bend after classes had been conducted sporadically in the church for a decade. St. Boniface became the first church in Barber County to be assigned a resident pastor when Father Francesco Lombardi arrived in 1909. The parish and its parochial school continued to grow rapidly over the next few decades. By 1924, 112 pupils were enrolled and already the need for a larger church and school was becoming evident.
However, it wasn't until near the end of World War II that serious planning and fund raising for a new church began. For a dozen years from 1948 to 1960, Father Wenzel Birzer served as pastor of St. Boniface, and during his energetic pastorate the parish completed a couple of major building projects. On May 29, 1949, the parish broke ground for its current Spanish Mission style church. Bishop Mark Carroll dedicated the new church a year later on May 9, 1950. Father Birzer also saw St. Boniface through the completion of a modern new school building in September of 1958. Enrollment at the time was 123 students. Building projects continued after Father Birzer's departure; the parish completed a new convent for the Dominican teaching sisters in 1963 and a new rectory in 1964. Unfortunately, the school was forced to close in 1972 when the parish lost the services of the Dominican sisters. The school building now serves as the parish hall and school of religion.
At various times throughout their history each of the three parishes in Barber County has had its own resident pastor. However, there were only two years in the late 1970s when all three parishes had one at the same time; at least two but sometimes three of these neighboring parishes have shared a priest over much of their history. When the shortage of priests in the Diocese of Dodge City prompted a major restructuring in the early 1990s, the three separate parishes were brought together under the care of a single pastor once again. Father Anthony Suellentrop shepherded this process, and he first coined the term "Catholic Church of Barber County" in 1994. That same year the three parishes established a joint Barber County Pastoral Council to coordinate schedules and programs and foster cooperation among them. The council continues to meet regularly to help these three distinct parishes work together as one united Catholic Church of Barber County.
Wenzl, Timothy, A Legacy of Faith: The History of the Diocese of Dodge City. 2001
Wenzl, Timothy, A Centennial History of St. Boniface Parish, Sharon, Kansas. 2004.
"Holy Rosary Parish Dedication Ceremony" February 20, 2000.