LANDECK — When Norbert Bonifas and Jerald Kill left their homes the morning of March 19, 1948, no one knew it would be for the last time.
The two boys had decided to pray the Stations of the Cross — a Catholic tradition that depicts the final days of Jesus in 14 parts. Certain prayers are said at each station.
At 12:40 p.m., a tornado ripped through the small town.
The boys were on the final station when the Rev. Robert Knoepfle, the pastor of Landeck’s St. John the Baptist Catholic Church at the time, warned the boys about the storm.
“They ran out the front of the church, but the steeple collapsed,” said Dan Kill, Jerald Kill’s younger brother. “Norbert was killed instantly, but Jerry was still alive, barely, when they found him on the front steps. He died on the way to the hospital.”
Although the two boys were the only fatalities, the devastation from the tornado was extensive. Many area homes, barns and businesses severely damaged. According to newspaper accounts from the time, the damages were estimated at around $1 million.
There were also other close calls, including two teenage girls, Velma (Hugel) Wehri and Angela (Wrasman) Meyer, whom a nun, Sister Paschal, hid in a cupboard. When the girls emerged from the cupboard, they were shocked to find the church was gone around them.
“I opened the door, and there was the sky,” Wehri stated in a written account. “I looked down, and there was the basement. I’ll never forget that.”
For the predominantly Catholic community, the church’s destruction was a hard blow. Over the next year and a half, the church was rebuilt and was consecrated Feb. 16, 1950. The Diocese of Toledo contributed $21,000 and the Delphos Chamber of Commerce collected and donated almost $8,000 toward the rebuilding. In the end, the new church cost around $200,000 to build and still stands today.
The 14th Station of the Cross, where the two boys were praying, was one of the few things inside the church not reduced to rubble. It was given to the Kill family because a family member, John Scharf, had donated funds for it.
The 14th Station of the Cross sat in an upstairs bedroom of Jerald Kill’s grandparents until the early 1970s. Later, it went into storage. In 2002, Dan Kill decided to have it restored.
“I had a hard time finding someone who would do it,” he said. “I finally got Gene Ray to do it.”
Ray agreed to work on the restoration in his spare time. Neither man realized the amount of work that the restoration would entail.
“Someone had tried to repaint it — maybe after the tornado — I’m not sure,” said Dan Kill. “The paint had baked on up in the attic and was flaking. It took Gene 200 hours into it to restore the five figures on the station.”
Ray chose to give the figures on the station a white marble look with a gold leaf base.
“He didn’t want to paint faces on the figures,” explained Dan Kill. “He didn’t want it to look cartoonish.”
About 10 months ago, Dan Kill decided that he would like to donate the station back to the church. However, before the 14th Station of the Cross could be installed in the church, written permission had to be obtained from Bishop Daniel Thomas of the Diocese of Toledo.
“I wrote a letter before my installation,” explained the Rev. Dennis Walsh, pastor of both St. John the Baptist Catholic Church and St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church. “When the bishop came for my installation, we talked about it, and he wanted to see where we were going to put it. We showed him the alcove we had in mind.”
While the piece originally served as a Station of the Cross, Dan Kill said Thomas suggested it be made into a shrine in the church instead. “So, we are going to put kneelers down so people can pray and a place for them to light candles,” he explained.
The official letter of permission arrived last week, and an official blessing of the 14th Station of the Cross in its new capacity as a shrine will take place at 7 p.m. today with a reception afterward.
The return of the 14th Station of the Cross is a significant moment for St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, as many of the older members remember that day in 1948.
“The 14th Station of the Cross is Jesus being lowered in the tomb,” said Walsh. “It is a reminder that death does not have the final word, that new life comes after death. It reminds them that the parish rose again, too, and that tragedy was not the final word.”