It was a cold day in New Prague, Minnesota, but the cold seemed less bitter once Geoff and I found a parking space on Main Street across from Lau’s Czech Bakery. We were in search of kolaches, and Lau’s was the place to go, although the spelling they use for the fruit or poppy seed filled pastries is “kolacky.” My “kolache” spelling and pronunciation come by way of my Czechoslovakian relatives in Nebraska. Just being at Lau’s made me feel closer to them. There were the cream puffs my grandmother used to make. There were the poppy seed, prune and apricot kolaches. The sauerkraut rye bread was sold out. But everything else you might need on a cold winter morning was there: a white curving counter flanked by bright red stools for parking yourself for a while with a cup of coffee, a display case filled with Czech pastries, and a cuckoo clock on the wall. Time itself seemed to have slowed. This perception increased with our stop for lunch at the Landmark Cafe, where we viewed antique concertinas in display cases, and chatted with the friendly server about the town and its activities over grilled cheese, tomato and onion on rye bread. We were too early for the live music that would fill the cafe later that day, but its evidence was all around us. The concertinas, accordion like instruments typically made in Germany or Chicago, were startlingly beautiful viewed up close, some of them trimmed in abalone with intricate designs.
It was afternoon when we reached the Church of St. Wenceslaus, a stunning structure set on a rise along Main Street. My late father went to St. Wenceslaus school and church in Omaha, not the same thing, of course, yet it seemed for the second time that day that I was back in a place my family might have known. Since the snow did lay ’round about, I was reminded of the Christmas carol: “Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Stephen. When the snow lay round about, crisp and deep and even. Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel….” The sun was shining brightly and the frost was cruel as we stood gazing up at the church’s edifice. Was it open? We climbed the steps from the street and tried the door. It opened. We stepped into the foyer and then tried the door into the sanctuary. It, too, was open. I gasped as we stepped inside. Towering stained glass windows lined the walls, and five additional windows appeared at the front of the church over the altar. The windows to the left of the church portrayed female saints, and to the right, male saints. The bright sunlight outside illuminated the windows as we stood in the silence, and the centuries seemed to pour through them along with the light. We studied their inscriptions in Czech as we walked slowly along the length of the sanctuary. The detail was incredible and the symbolism, intriguing. The windows were telling stories. Clearly, some of the early community of New Prague had poured their best energies and resources into portraying them.* I stood for a long time in the silence, listening.
Before we left, we lit candles. I lit a candle for my dad, and one for Oscar Romero. I lit another one for my relatives and their own stories, and one for Father Mychal Judge. Slowly we made our way out of the church, back into the bright sunshine. Where had we been? It seemed that we had wandered, for a while, into a little piece of another dimension, a space that tried to convey a sense of something larger than any one of us, yet linked inextricably through us, in our struggles and hopes, our yearnings and our glimpses of transcendence, there in the stories in glass, where the light and shadows play through them, now and down through the years.
*The church, built in 1907, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Surprisingly, I have been unable to find much information about its history.