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The Heartland of Tradition

In 2019 I was being deployed to Bellevue. Significant portions of Nebraska and Iowa were underwater following a devastating storm, and I was to head up Operations. As I’ve done in anticipation of other disaster response deployments, I looked for local churches that might still be open. I found Immaculate Conception in Omaha, an FSSP Parish. Though already familiar with the TLM in “shared” situations, I had never been to a traditional Mass at an exclusively traditional parish before.

I was happy to discover this opportunity, and I got word of my deployment well enough in advance that I was able to start thinking about how I would get from the Forward Operating Base (FOB) to the parish. It was apparently a fifteen minute drive. That said, there were concerns about which roads would be impassable and what modes of transportation would be impacted. I emailed the parish and introduced myself, and explained my situation.

A few days later—still in plenty of time before I was getting ready to leave for NE—the pastor emailed me. A parishioner had offered to drive me from the FOB to church and back again and, with my permission, Father was going to pass along my contact information. I agreed, of course, and soon received a call from a young airman stationed at nearby Offut AFB. After a brief conversation, everything was set! I was to arrive in Bellevue on Saturday afternoon; after getting myself situated there and clearing everything with the Incident Commander, I would text him the address and be ready the following morning for Mass at 07.30 hrs.

That Saturday afternoon, as the plane descended, I looked out my window and thought: Why are we so low over whatever huge lake this is? Then I noticed isolated squares of earth in the midst of the water, which housed collapsed structures and fallen trees. That’s how bad it was. We touched down and I retrieved my one bag. I had a bit of a wait for my ride to Bellevue; team members would be arriving from points all over the US in the next couple of hours and we’d all be heading over together.

Next day at the FOB, after giving the Ops presentation at the morning briefing outdoors, I ran back into the single-story grammar school building we were using as a command center to retrieve a few items. I exited the building on the charlie side onto a clear road and made my way to the main thoroughfare. Everything was deserted. Still. Silent. A few minutes later, the airman drove up and stopped at the corner. I got into the car and off we went.

As we arrived at the FSSP parish, one of my first thoughts was that the church facade was beautiful. Permanent-looking.

Notices, along with advertisements and requests of a less official sort, were pinned up on a bulletin board in the vestibule. Sacramentals and prayer cards were nicely arranged on tables provided for that purpose. People smiled as they came through, nodded and held the door. We blessed ourselves at the fonts and walked into the church. 

It immediately occurred to me that this was a well-maintained place, that it was full of people, and that the lights were dim and it was quiet. Older couples and individuals, families of different sizes. Babies. There was no bustle of activity in the sanctuary or anywhere in the nave. No furnishings to be moved or rearranged. No liturgical colors to be changed. People seemed comfortable and everything had been prepared. We still had a few minutes until the Mass would begin, and I had the opportunity to say my prayers.

The lights got slightly brighter. The Mass was familiar to me, as I am accustomed to attending the Traditional Mass back home. I was very grateful to be at Mass at all—and at the Traditional Mass particularly—during this operation far from home. Mass proceeded as usual. In making his brief announcements before the homily, Father thanked those in the congregation who had responded to his request for help with my trip. He then announced the death of a parishioner and offered his condolences to family members and friends who were present, and led everyone in a Hail Mary for the repose of the person’s soul. The homily that followed was on the importance of preparing for death with a good life. 

After Mass, again, it was the calmness that I appreciated. The priest and most people stayed inside the church for a period of thanksgiving, some for a longer time and some shorter, but there was no hurry. No disturbance. On the way into the vestibule and back out onto the street, people were warm and friendly and courteous. They talked about Sunday afternoon plans and about future events at Immaculate Conception School. My companion and I went to share a cup of coffee before our return to the FOB.

I have no idea if my impression of Immaculate Conception Church and School in Omaha is true to life. I was in Nebraska to help people in the aftermath of a storm that could cripple the beef industry in the heartland and raise meat prices in the eastern US for the next two years. Faced with a situation in which I was hoping to find any Catholic church available for any Mass, but everything I experienced in this parish seemed to have such integrity. That’s really the best word to describe it. Integrity. All the pieces seemed to fit.

I am very grateful to know that, not only is the Traditional Mass available, but that a traditional Catholic culture—an example of which I think I observed in Omaha—still exists. I’d like to see it spread far and wide.

I spent the better part of the week that followed inside our command center, tending to the needs of our Operations Section. I sent teams out to do damage assessments, report on mold mitigation needs, tear down rotting sheet rock and rip up flooring, pull nails and remove debris, tarp roofs, cut and swamp trees…Making properties and homes contractor-ready for people who had no idea where to begin. Then I was on my way back to Omaha for my return flight to New York.

The other day I heard that, at the height of its lockdown during the pandemic last year, New York and specifically New York City had to import a lot of beef from Nebraska and Iowa. When I see the Omaha logo in the butcher section of the grocery store, I smile and remember Bellevue and Omaha and the Traditional Catholics who supported me while we supported the good people of eastern Nebraska and western Iowa. Then I buy a few steaks and some stew meat.

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]

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