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Church, town inseparable in Butler

A stone pillar at the church entrance, with the Butler highway sign and, in the background, the dairy silos--which reflect the economic backbone of the village--which observed its 125th anniversary in 2008.1 / 4
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This distinctive stained glass window, about the size of a garage door, was acquired from a defunct Methodist church in Montevideo when Butler's Holy Cross rebuilt after the May 1999 fire.3 / 4
Tragic though it was, the lightning fire that destroyed Butler Holy Cross Church ten years ago, on Mother's Day, didn't end worship for the determined parishioners. Services continued to be held in a detached storage building that was untouched by the fire; and in less than a year, the above church was completed.4 / 4

Butler hosted its fourth annual "Butler Days" May 2, but in a sense, the tiny community was celebrating something much more profound: A resurrection, of sorts.

It was almost ten years ago to the day--Mother's Day morning, 1999--that the little place called Butler almost died.

Lightning struck Butler's Holy Cross Catholic Church, around 3 a.m., and within hours the church was a total loss--estimated at $500,000.

Officially, Butler is a township.

Emotionally and sentimentally, it is a charming rural settlement where folks still milk cows, drive tractors, haul hay, help their neighbors and pack up to go to church on Sundays.

The soul of Butler is contained in a square-mile spot on County Road 67, where a few businesses like the Hendrickx Implement and the Red Barn Greenhouse operate.

Just to the west, is Butler's beating heart: The Holy Cross Church.

Church provides "town center" for Butler

When it was destroyed in 1999, Butler was virtually doomed as a definable "village" in northeastern Otter Tail County. Without the Holy Cross Church, Butler was without a central gathering spot.

Interestingly, about the only salvageable item from the fire was a metal statue of Mother Mary, which was under a stairway and somewhat protected from the flames, noted Butler's Faye Hendrickx. That statue is on display in the new church.

"Merge or build?" That was the headline in the New York Mills Herald after the fire.

"The diocese would have rather not rebuilt," said Faye Hendrickx. "But the parishioners really fought to have the church rebuilt...And they were very generous with their time and money for the project."

It took some intense lobbying--plus a lucrative insurance settlement--to convince the Catholic hierarchy that Butler could sustain its own church.

Without their church, Holy Cross parishioners met in a small, detached building on the church grounds. From June 1999 to March of the new century, church services continued in what is essentially a storage building--where the community rummage sale was held last weekend.

"We kept right on going," said Faye Hendrickx.

There was even one baptism during those interim months in the storage shed: Ethan Hendrickx, now ten years old and an active youth member of Holy Cross.

Church "resurrected" in less than a year after fire

In March of 2000, only ten months after the fire, the new church was dedicated. Not long after, Blake Roberts was baptized--the first in the new Holy Cross Church.

While it was sad to lose the original, stately brick structure; the Holy Cross ladies don't miss the kitchen.

"It was like a dungeon down there," said Mary Hendrickx, of the church kitchen in the basement.

"We stood on a board when we worked in the kitchen, so our feet didn't get wet," recalled Faye Hendrickx.

The new church kitchen, where lunch was served May 2 for Butler Days, is spacious.

Right next to the kitchen is a large fellowship hall. The new church was designed specifically to serve as a Butler "community center," available for non-church functions as well.

For a mere $50, the hall is available for anniversaries, wedding receptions, meetings and birthdays. The senior citizens utilize the meeting hall, as well as the 4-H club.

Much of Butler heritage is decidedly Dutch

Whether or not you are a Catholic, the Holy Cross Church is Butler's "town square."

But, the fact is, most Butlerites are Catholics. More specifically, most Butlerites are descendents of a railcar full of Dutch Catholics who arrived in 1910.

Peeters, Dykhoff, Van Erp, Vanden Berghe, Rutten, Hendrickx--these are the Hollanders that arrived; and they had much to be thankful for. The soil wasn't too awful bad around Butler; but more importantly, they got the heck out of Europe--which in 1914 would implode in the First World War.

It looked like World War III when Butler farmwife and mom Mary Hendrickx looked across the field and saw the devastating glow as Holy Cross burned in the darkness. It was a dreadful awakening, Mother's Day, 1999.

"It affected a lot of people. We're a very close-knit group out here," said Faye Hendrickx, as she worked the May 2 "Butler Days" quilt-rummage-card-bake sale at Holy Cross.

Despite rural trends, Butler doing fine in the new century

There are about a dozen working dairy farms in Butler Township, counted LaVerne Hendrickx. That's about half the number from back in the 1950's, she recalled.

But Butler, which celebrated its 125th year in 2008, survives.

With about 190 members, representing about 50 families, Holy Cross Church also survives--quite well, actually. The congregation size remains stable, while many rural churches are in decline, or closing entirely.

Butler boasts one of the most active 4-H clubs around, even though those big Catholic families aren't as common as a generation ago.

"We used to have at least 50 kids in the Butler 4-H," noted Nancy Hendrickx. But even at its present membership of 25 to 30, the Butler 4-H group is among the larger clubs in Otter Tail County.

Butler remains a vibrant rural community, as evidenced by the "Butler Days" event May 2. But, if Holy Cross Church had not been rebuilt after the fire of 1999, it's hard to speculate whether there would be a May celebration--or for that matter, even a village of Butler.