For 125 years, the Lakeport Church has withstood tornadoes, disrepair and even arson.
It’s the little church that refuses to die.
The distinctive chalkrock structure — officially known as St. John the Baptist Catholic Church — no longer serves a parish or has regular Mass. But this Sunday, descendants of early members along with other interested persons will celebrate the church’s quasquicentennial.
The Lakeport Church Association is organizing the celebration. The officers include Art Kotalik, president; David Cap, vice president; Leona Cwach, secretary; and Darlene Pokorney, treasurer.
The church is located nine miles west of Yankton on Highway 50, then a half-mile north and a half-mile west through a farmyard.
The church opened in 1884, serving the German and Czech settlers. The town of Lakeport was located about two miles east of the church.
The parish filled a void for local Catholics as the nearby Nedved church had closed, Kotalik said. The Nedved cemetery still remains, he said.
When it came to building the Lakeport Church, early settlers were forced to be creative, Kotalik said.
“The land was platted, and in 1882 they started building. It took them two years to build the church,” he said. “They had a barren, treeless prairie, so they used the chalkrock that was quarried from the riverbank straight south of here.”
Settlers traveled by horse and wagon, Kotalik said. The lack of good roads presented problems in transporting building materials or even reaching the church for Mass, he said.
“The Cavalry camped by Lakeport and used a rugged path to get to Fort Randall,” he said. “A soldier was buried there when he died at camp while they were on their way to Fort Pierre.”
Travel was hazardous, with the distance between Yankton and Lakeport requiring a day’s travel, he said.
“Then it was a day’s trip to Bon Homme and another day’s trip to Pickstown,” he said. “Eventually, they went to Pierre.”
Lakeport was assigned a priest until 1903. After that, the church’s members eventually joined parishes in Tabor, Lesterville or Yankton.
“The Lakeport Church was abandoned and left to Mother Nature,” Kotalik said.
Henry Adam of Tabor maintained the church and grounds on his own. Even with his care, the church deteriorated over the years.
“They were prepared to tear it down, but Agnes Hejna and I objected heavily,” Kotalik said, referring to Henry Adam’s daughter.
With the help of a South Dakota Historical Society grant, repairs were made to the Lakeport Church. Another major change came with the reintroduction of annual Masses, drawing 50 to 150 people.
“We celebrated Mass 25 years ago, for the centennial in 1984,” Kotalik said. “Then we started up our annual celebrations again, and we have continued holding Mass here every year since then.”
The first of those Masses brought some concerns, said Geraldine Kotalik, Art’s wife.
“In 1984, Monsignor (Carlton) Hermann wanted to celebrate Mass outside. He was concerned about the plaster falling inside, and the clean-up that was needed was astounding,” she said.
“But we celebrated Mass inside, and it was held on the feast of St. Wenceslaus because it’s the patron saint of our mother church in Tabor.”
The red carpet will be rolled out Sunday at “the smiling church,” nicknamed because its front windows and door form the image of wide eyes and a grin.
Sunday’s celebration, which is open to the public, will follow the theme “Restoring the past for the future.”
Monsignor Hermann will celebrate the 10:30 a.m. Mass at the church. After the Mass, the noon meal will be held at Beseda Hall in Tabor. Pork sandwiches will be furnished for a freewill donation, and participants are asked to provide a salad. Raffle prizes will be awarded during the afternoon.
At the 1 p.m. program, Romaine Pesicka will present the history of the Lakeport church, followed by a PowerPoint presentation with pictorials from Lakeport’s early days.
The program will also honor the teachers and students of the surrounding country schools. Those schools include Lakeport No. 13, Elm Grove No. 53, Elm View No. 51, Roosevelt No. 57, Hillview No. 12 and Fairview No. 16.
Sunday’s Mass and program will also provide a time for marveling at the Lakeport Church’s resiliency. The church has survived disasters through the years, including tornadoes in 1983, 1985, 1991 and most recently in 2007.
But perhaps the most disturbing event was the attempted arson in the late 1990s, which still leaves scars.
Miraculously, the attempt inflicted minimal damage, Art Kotalik said.
He credits divine intervention. “It’s like the Lord said, this (fire) wasn’t going to happen,” he said.
The case remains unsolved, Kotalik said.
As part of maintaining the church, Bob Hanson of Yankton worked with the masonry restoration.
Cwach noted the different shapes of chalkrock found throughout the church, which were brought together into a precision pattern.
“The rocks are two to three feet thick. It’s just like you would find in Europe,” Art Kotalik said.
The pioneers who built the church didn’t have the luxury of modern tools, said Ione Cap, David’s wife. “But it’s stood the test of time,” she said.
While the Lakeport Church has undergone some restoration, there are limits to what can be done, Ione Cap said.
First, the church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And some things can’t be replicated, such as the type of paint originally used in the church. The building’s condition also places limits on repairs.
And then there’s the desire to retain as much of the original church as possible.
One feature has been exchanged — the original Lakeport church bell is now at St. Wenceslaus in Tabor, while the Lakeport school bell is at the Lakeport Church.
The long-term future of the Lakeport Church and its annual celebration remains uncertain, Art Kotalik said.
“A lot of families move away, and those who stay around here are fewer and fewer,” he said.
Geraldine Kotalik hopes the church and its traditions remain alive for years to come.
“For the future, I hope the young people continue it,” she said.