Sheila Roth pits churchgoers against each other at Ste. Genevieve Parish in Ste. Genevieve.
But it’s all in the name of art, beauty and love of their church — last year, Roth began posting “scavenger hunts” on the parish’s Facebook page, creating competitions that have drawn parishioners of all stripes to explore the historic building.
“Our church is so beautiful,” Roth said. “Sometimes we go in our churches and we just don’t appreciate it because we see it everyday, every week.” She pondered and prayed about ways to get parishioners engaged in the parish’s artistic beauty.
She began making regular posts on Oct. 23 of last year, posting material on Thursday and revealing the answer on Tuesday, giving participants the weekend to go hunting in the church, which is open for much of daylight hours. She encourages parishioners to post their findings in the comments. Taking cryptic photos of various objects and images in the building, often up-close or from angles from which things aren’t normally glimpsed, she posts her pictures on the page and encourages people to puzzle out what they depict. She focuses on “things that people might not normally see” just going for Mass on Sundays.
“You know that you’re entering into the house of God when you go through our church doors.” Those towering wooden doors were even the subject of one week’s scavenger hunt.
Roth put the hunts on hiatus during the summer for the school’s break. She began posting again on Aug. 16, sending eager parishioners and schoolchildren after the image of Our Lady’s Assumption and a depiction of a farm animal (excluding sheep).
Rising an impressive 190 feet over the streets at the point of the steeple, the current church building is the fourth for the oldest parish within the archdiocese. Its history dates to 1759 with its first baptism, a little more than a log cabin near the banks of the Mississippi River. This structure was dismantled and reassembled next door to the current site in 1794 due to flooding. The current church was constructed in 1880 and was expanded to its present size and cruciform shape in 1911.
The building is 175 feet long by 70 feet wide, and the inside rises 55 feet high. The church counts 49 statues lining its walls. Among the parish’s artistic patrons is King Louis XV of France, who in the 18th century donated two paintings to the people of Ste. Genevieve, one of the Holy Family in exile and the other of the parish’s patron saint.
In other words, the church is perfect material for Roth’s endeavor.
“My whole purpose is that we live here, and we don’t appreciate it,” Roth said. She often finds that scavenger hunters post replies featuring objects and icons even she hasn’t noticed. Even she faces a learning curve with such an intricate building.
“This is a real learning process for me,” she said.
Roth drew inspiration for this use of the Facebook account from a Vacation Bible School activity in 2009. Children participating in the day camp that year explored the church for scavenger hunts marking the 250th anniversary of the parish.
Many individuals and groups have participated in Roth’s architectural quests, some becoming regulars week after week.
One such enthusiastic scavenger hunter last school year was Theresa Kirchmer, accompanied by dozens of students from her classes at the parish school. Kirchmer began leading them in the hunts almost weekly in her role as a religion teacher for fourth and fifth grades.
“They enjoyed it a lot,” she said. “They liked the fact that they were noticing things that have been there for 100 years and they had never noticed them before.” Often, her students in one class would challenge another to a similar scavenger hunt with church features they had discovered while searching for Roth’s gems. Kirchmer retired last spring, having taught at Ste. Genevieve for 33 years and a grand total of 45 in Catholic education.
But Kirchmer’s students weren’t the only ones racing to post their replies. Parishioner Jo Ann Schremp frequents Friday morning Mass at the parish, and would often go into church early in the morning to “get a head start on those fifth graders!” She noted that in the “beautiful, beautiful, beautiful church,” it can be easy to “miss things if you’re not looking.”
“We’re in that church often, but how often do we really take a close look?” Kirchmer said.