A pewter communion chalice has found its way back to Mascoutah, 123 years after a a parishioner pulled it out of debris at a local church and kept it as a souvenir of a deadly tornado.
The chalice was handed down through the man’s family and spent the past 54 years in Minnesota. But this summer, it was returned to St. John United Church of Christ, thanks to an antique dealer with a sentimental side.
“It’s nice to have it back,” said the Rev. Hugh Fitz, pastor at St. John for 15 years. “It’s not a priceless item, but it’s part of our DNA and our history, and we almost have to assume that it came with the German immigrants who settled here in the late 1830s.”
The 8-inch-tall chalice is nearly black but otherwise in perfect condition. It’s being displayed behind glass in a cupboard at the church.
Mascoutah historian Marilyn Welch, 90, a longtime St. John member, is thrilled any time a significant artifact is recovered. But she sees this as a special opportunity to educate the public.
Many people don’t even know about the tornado, which cut a path through St. Louis, East St. Louis, Belleville, Mascoutah and New Baden on May 27, 1896. It killed 255 people, injured 1,000, left 5,000 homeless and caused more than $12 million in property damage (about $366.5 million by today’s standards).
“It’s still ranked the third worst tornado in the United States,” said Welch, who also is a board member for Mascoutah Historical Society.
Tragedy detailed in newspaper extra
The weekly Mascoutah Herald newspaper published a rare extra the day after the tornado, giving sensational details on the destruction and damage of homes, businesses, schools, churches, warehouses, barns, sheds, fences and parks.
Mascoutah’s death toll was low compared to other communities. Only 7-year-old Johnnie Beatty was killed immediately. He had taken his father supper at the “electric light power house” and got hit in the head, probably by a brick. Several others died of injuries later.
High winds and heavy rains flattened crops, knocked down cemetery monuments and pulled large trees out of the ground, roots and all.
“A horse belonging to Mr. J.W. Krauth was picked up and landed on a clothes line in Mr. Oscar H. Teichmann’s yard,” the Herald reported.
The steeple on the former St. John Evangelical and Reformed Church remained erect, but the tornado ripped off its roof, blew in the north gable, scattered bricks and other debris and ruined most contents.
Parishioner Philip Pfeifer, who had made the church’s pulpit, was surveying damage when he found the chalice, according to his great-great-granddaughter, Rita Stoffel Johnson, 73, of Eden Prairie, Minnesota.
“He salvaged it from the rubble and took it home for safekeeping,” she said. “I’m sure everyone knew he had it, but they were talking about rebuilding, and I don’t think anybody was real interested in it.”
The Rev. Herman Walz led worship services at a nearby school while the church was being rebuilt. That building was demolished in the 1920s to make way for the current one on West Church Street.
Pfeifers owned bottling company
The Pfeifers were prominent Mascoutah residents and owners of Pfeifer Bottling Co., which sold and delivered “soda water” throughout the region. They were active at St. John for decades.
Over the years, the chalice was handed down to Johnson’s great-grandfather, Philip Pfeifer Jr.; grandfather Herbert Pfeifer, who served as the city’s fire chief; and mother, Cathrine Pfeifer Stoffel, who lived across the street from the church with her husband, Julius Stoffel.
“It was displayed with reverence (in their china cabinets),” Johnson said. “It wasn’t just thrown in a drawer or used to hold pencils or something like that.”
The Stoffels moved to the Minneapolis area in 1965, when Julius got a new job, and they took the chalice with them. Johnson was attending Southern Illinois University Carbondale at the time.
Johnson inherited the chalice in the early 2000s, after her mother died. Then last year, she became a widow and decided to downsize and move into a condo.
Last spring, Johnson gathered a box of items that her two grown children and nine grandchildren didn’t want and took them to Amore Antiques in Anoka, Minnesota.
“To be quite honest, I didn’t know what to do with (the chalice),” she said. “I remember my mother offering it back to the church — I can’t remember when — and nobody seemed to be interested. People didn’t put much in historical items back then.”
Dealer saw value in pewter piece
Antique dealer Barb Urlaub couldn’t be reached for comment this week, but she was interviewed in July by Senior Perspective, a Minnesota newspaper.
Urlaub remembered looking in Johnson’s box and zeroing in on the chalice.
“When (Johnson) told me the story, I just thought it was something special and sacred and felt like it wasn’t something I wanted to sell here in the shop,” Urlaub explained to the newspaper. “I thought maybe someone in the church would be interested in it.”
Urlaub sent a private Facebook message to St. John in May, according to the Rev. Fitz. Staff members connected her with Welch, who knew all about the Pfeifer family and the 1896 tornado.
Welch offered to buy the chalice from Urlaub. She had searched on eBay and found a similar one priced at $165.
“I said, ‘I’ll pay for it, and I’ll pay for the shipping,’” Welch said. “And (Urlaub) said, ‘No, I’m donating it. I’m giving it to the church. This belongs back in the church.’”
The unusual story caught the attention of John Pertzborn, co-anchor of FOX 2 News in the Morning, who invited Welch to appear on his TV show last week. It’s also been a Facebook sensation.
Welch is happy that the chalice publicity has put a spotlight on local history. It also has reminded people that a community can work together to overcome tragedy, no matter how severe.
“When you look at the pictures, it’s just unbelievable,” Welch said.