Polka Mass an annual gathering of friends, neighbors

For most people, most of the time, the thought of church brings to mind things like sermons, Sunday school, choral music and spiritual connection. But for the parishioners and visitors to St. Lawrence Catholic Church, for one day every summer, th...

outdoor altar at St. Lawrence Catholic Church
Marie Nitke/FOCUS Father George Michael, third from left, in front of the outdoor altar at St. Lawrence Catholic Church with a few of the Polka Mass organizers, left to right, Carol Ogroske, Marlene Boedigheimer and Patty Doll.

For most people, most of the time, the thought of church brings to mind things like sermons, Sunday school, choral music and spiritual connection.

But for the parishioners and visitors to St. Lawrence Catholic Church, for one day every summer, the thought of church brings to mind something quite different – polka.

That’s because, once a year for the last 27 years, St. Lawrence has held a fun-filled outdoor Polka Mass.

The event attracts upwards of 600 people every August to the little white church near Rush Lake, which is the oldest Catholic church in Otter Tail County.

The Polka Mass will be happening again this year on Sunday, Aug. 4, starting at 10:30 a.m. As in years past, the event will include a church service as well as food, games, prize drawings, and of course, plenty of polka music. The public is invited to join in.


As far as anyone knows, it’s the only annual church service like it for miles around.

In an interview Monday, key organizers of the Polka Mass said it’s a tradition many families in the area look forward to from year to year. A reunion of sorts, the event has become an eagerly anticipated social gathering for parishioners and guests alike.

“The spirit is good,” one organizer, Patty Doll, said of the event, adding that the feedback from people “is always favorable.”

The tradition of the Polka Mass began in 1986, as a special commemoration of the church’s 100th anniversary. Andrew Klinnert, a St. Lawrence parishioner and chairperson of the Polka Mass planning committee, explained that the church’s strong German history made polka a fitting choice for the celebration’s theme. People enjoyed the special service, so it stuck, returning the next year, and the next, and soon turning into a beloved annual tradition.

Weather permitting, it’s always held outdoors, at an altar specially built adjacent to the church for this once-a-year-event. The Polka Mass was moved outdoors, organizers said, because the church was too small to hold everyone and people used to have to stand outside and watch through the windows.

For the last three years, the service has been led by Father George Michael, who leads regular services at St. Lawrence as well as Church of the Sacred Heart in Dent.

A priest for the last 18 years, Father Michael was born and raised in India, and spent some time studying theology in France before being called to the United States about five years ago. He came to the Perham area after spending 18 months as an associate pastor at parishes in St. Cloud.

Before moving here, he had never seen or heard of a Polka Mass.


“It’s different,” he said, “but I like it.”

“I really like this parish,” he added. “This parish is very welcoming, supporting and encouraging. It’s a completely different culture for me here, but I feel well accepted.”

As one of the Polka Mass raffle prizes, Father Michael is offering to cook a traditional Indian meal at his home, for up to six people. The raffle drawing will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday. Proceeds will go to St. Henry’s Catholic School in Perham.

There will be plenty for people to do between the service and the raffle drawing, with bingo, games for kids, a silent auction, and polka music by the Cathy Erickson band going on between 11:30 and 2 p.m.

During that same time, a prime rib and chicken dinner will be served. Jim Guck, who has cooked his “famous chicken” for the Polka Mass every year since the first event 27 years ago, will be back again this year, Doll said.

The Cathy Erickson band, which travels from Greenbush, Minn., has been coming down for the Polka Mass every year for about the last 20 years, Doll said. The group is in high demand around the region, but always makes time for the St. Lawrence event.

Parishioners put in a lot of effort to make the Polka Mass a success. Organizers Marlene Boedigheimer and Carol Ogroske said 22 different committees and 190 volunteers from the church help plan and execute everything from raffle ticket sales to decorations for the big day.

St. Lawrence is celebrating its 127th year this year. The church is located on Highway 14, just a few miles off of Highway 78, south of Perham.

A writer, editor and mom of four (two kids, two dogs), Marie's been in the newspaper business for over 20 years. She started at the Detroit Lakes Tribune in 2017 after working just down the road at the Perham Focus for several years. Before that, she was at the Herald-Review in Grand Rapids, Minn.
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