Nearly 300 years after the first Catholic Mass inside present-day Nebraska, some 40 North Platte Catholics gathered near one of its possible sites to ponder the wonders of nature and God’s role in it.
Calm conditions and generally cheery skies greeted them Sunday morning for the 51st annual Nebraskaland Days Field Mass, held at its long-familiar location just northeast of North Platte Community College’s North Campus.
God “gives us the beauty of this great world, the beauty of our nature, the beauty of our lives,” the Rev. Mark Seiker, pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church, told worshipers during his homily.
Marked with a permanent cross and altar built by Boy Scouts, the Field Mass site lies 3½ miles west of where the North Platte and South Platte rivers join to form the Platte.
Local Catholics believe the expedition of Spaniard Don Pedro de Villasur, traveling north and east from present-day Santa Fe, New Mexico, celebrated Mass near the Platte forks 299 years ago.
A band of French-allied Pawnee attacked the party of more than 100 on Aug. 13, 1720, at the junction of the Platte and Loup rivers near Columbus. Villasur and 43 others in his group were killed, including the Rev. Juan Minguez, a Franciscan priest and missionary.
The expedition’s records can be interpreted as saying Villasur first reached the river valley near the North Platte-South Platte junction and traveled downstream to his doom, said Mike Stromitis, a St. Patrick Catholic Church member attending Sunday’s Field Mass.
“So this (area) probably had the first Mass celebrated in Nebraska,” said Stromitis, a member of St. Patrick’s Knights of Columbus No. 1211. “The priest would celebrate Mass every Sunday.”
This year’s Field Mass fell on Trinity Sunday, when most Christians reflect on their belief in a single God of three persons — the Father, the Son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit.
In his homily, Seiker recalled the example of Minguez and the other early Spanish and French missionaries who witnessed to the Catholic faith in North America.’
“They didn’t have all our technology, but they were willing to proclaim the Trinity through the sacrifice of the Mass,” he said.
Catholics, he added, should “acknowledge our dependence upon God for everything that is, everything that we have, everything that we are” and tell others that “belief in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit has changed my life.”
The Field Mass has been held each year since Nebraskaland Days moved from Lincoln to North Platte in 1968. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton has organized it since the Lincoln Diocese parish was founded in 1994.
The family of Jerome and Kay Cooper of Wellfleet, members of Holy Spirit Catholic Church, have attended the Field Mass for at least 30 years, Kay Cooper said. Jerome Cooper was one of three uniformed Knights of Columbus in the opening and closing processions.
Joining the couple this year were grandchildren Riley and Griffin Walters of Omaha and daughter Lisa Cooper, who came home for the weekend from Fountain, Colorado.
“It’s beautiful here and peaceful,” Lisa Cooper said. “The commemoration of the martyrdom of the priest and the others killed is significant as well. And it’s a nice way to tie in the faith with Nebraskaland Days.”