Polka masses another nod to German roots

Photos by Nic Antaya/The Herald
Fr. John Boeglin of Jasper performed the eucharistic prayer during the 30th annual Holy Family polka Mass at Holy Family Catholic Church during the Strassenfest on Saturday. The polka Mass featured regular songs put to a polka beat, a eucharistic prayer in German and the addition of a live accordion player. For more photos from the fest, click here.


JASPER— Jasper’s three Catholic churches have left their mark on the annual Strassenfest with the polka Mass.

No, there isn’t polka dancing in the pews. But there is upbeat music played on an accordion, giving the hourlong services a bit more pep than one might expect from Mass.

Polka refers both to a folk dance and style of folk music that originated in the Czech Republic in the mid-1800s. Polka gained popularity throughout Europe, particularly in countries bordering the Alpine Mountains to the north. When German settlers from Pfaffenweiler, a town in southern Germany, migrated to Dubois County in the 1800s, they brought polka with them, earning the folk dance and music a spot in Dubois County tradition.

Each Jasper parish holds its own polka Mass during Strassenfest weekend. This year, St. Joseph and Holy Family held their polka masses Saturday evening, and Precious Blood held its polka Mass Sunday morning. St. Joseph held its annual German Heritage Mass on Sunday morning.

“Polka Mass is crazy fun,” said Paula Alles, the music director at St. Joseph. “The German heritage mass is a bit more formal.”

Alter server Zach Beckman of Jasper raised the cross while alongside Reece Fischer of Jasper, 12, during the polka Mass. For more photos from the fest, click here.

Jasper priests first performed the polka Mass — which is a regular mass with hymns set to a polka beat — in 1988, 10 years after the first Strassenfest and 15 years after Minnesotan Father Frank Perkovich first wrote the music for the Mass. At the time, the Second Vatican Council had just happened, ending the celebration of the Mass in Latin. From there, the Catholic Church decided the Mass also needed more contemporary music, which lead Perkovich to set traditional hymns to the polka beat. In 1983, Perkovich performed a polka Mass for then-Pope John Paul II, who was Polish.

“(The pope) told him to continue his ministry,” said Dan Racicot, the music director at Holy Family.

Five years after the polka Mass got the go-ahead from the Vatican, Jasper’s Catholic community picked up the program as a way to celebrate the area’s German heritage. Holy Family’s Father John Boeglin focused on that history in his sermon Saturday evening, pointing to the stained glass window on the church’s south wall that depicts the county’s German heritage.

The first German Catholics, he said, arrived in the area in 1835 and were served by French-speaking priests from Vincennes. They could understand the Mass, Boeglin said, because at that time it was still celebrated in Latin. But outside of the Mass, the first Germans couldn’t communicate with the priests. That changed when Father Joseph Kundek, the man responsible for the formation of many of Dubois County’s Catholic churches and towns, arrived. Recognizing the need for Catholic ministry in German, Kundek sent for Benedictine monks out of Switzerland who could speak the language.

Louise Neukam of St. Anthony, 66, played the accordion during the polka Mass. Neukam said she started playing the accordion when she was 6 or 7 years old. The polka Mass featured regular songs put to a polka beat, a eucharistic prayer in German and the addition of a live accordion player. For more photos from the fest, click here.

“The beautiful thing is that these Germans cherished their faith,” Boeglin said in his sermon. “They did, and they wanted to bring it here ... We need to thank them because they are the ones that gave us our faith.”

Boeglin described the Mass as a time when the area’s Catholics come together as people of God to celebrate their heritage. Over its 30-year run, the polka Mass and its message has become an annual tradition for many area families, including Jeff Lechner and his family. Lechner grew up attending the polka Mass, and he attended Holy Family’s rendition wearing Lederhosen, another nod to his family’s German roots.

“It’s just something I’ve always done,” he said, adding that it helps him feel connected to his ancestors.

The polka masses have already grown to reach beyond Dubois County, attracting people from all over Indiana and surrounding states. Boeglin believes its the upbeat music that draws in the crowds. Music, he said, has a way of reaching and lightening the soul.

“People have enough worry and depression through the week,” he said. “They need something that’s upbeat and speaks to their hearts. The Mass set to polka is good for that.”

Churchgoers attended the 30th annual Holy Family Polka Mass at Holy Family Catholic Church during the 40th annual Jasper Strassenfest on Saturday. Fr. John Boeglin of Jasper addressed the meaning behind the faceted glass during his homily and said the elements reflect the history of Dubois County as Catholics see it. For more photos from the fest, click here.

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