From Horseman to Holy Man: The Story Behind One of St. Mary Mokena’s Earliest Priests

Father Francis Sixt
Father Francis Sixt ran the St, Mary Mokena Mission from 1878-1883.

Over its more than 155-year history, St. Mary Parish in Mokena has seen scores of priests pass through its doors. Many of their stories have been lost to time. As their former parishioners left this life, they took the memories of the priests and pastors who served the parish with them.

In some fortunate cases, information was written down, and we can learn a little bit about these men of God. Not all of them had what one might call a “typical” road to priesthood. Some, like Father Francis Sixt, experienced the roar of cannon fire long before the chime of altar bells.

Formed By War

Francis Sixt was born in the small Bavarian town of Unterrödel in Germany on May 21st, 1851. He spent his childhood attending public school in Eichstätt and later in Amberg until the age of nineteen.

A year later, in 1870, the Franco-Prussian War erupted between France and Germany. The conflict stemmed from German ambitions for unification and French fears of a powerful Germany. Francis was drafted into the Sixth Cavalry Regiment of Bavaria and sent to the frontlines.

This was the age of long marches and cavalry charges. On one campaign, Francis reportedly spent more than 20 hours on horseback every day for three days chasing the French army. A biographer wrote, “he [Francis] and many other soldiers were so blistered by the hard riding that the blood from their mutilated limbs ran into their boots.” Francis participated in the Battles of Sedan, Orleans, and Paris.

Franco-Prussian War
An illustration of the Battle of Sedan during the Franco-Prussian War.

Despite the struggle of the individual soldier, the war ended up being fairly one-sided, with Germany conquering France in a matter of months. The war’s brevity certainly must have been a relief for the beleaguered Francis, who was eager to start his life.

The St. Mary Mission

Young Father Sixt
Father Sixt’s seminary photo. Circa 1870s.

In 1871, Francis emigrated to the United States and began attending St. Francis de Sales Seminary in Milwaukee. He graduated and was ordained a priest on June 10, 1876, by Bishop Thomas Foley of Chicago.

His first assignments were at St. James and St. Francis of Assisi Parishes in Chicago. Around 1878, he was assigned to St. Joseph Church in Lockport, where he remained until 1884. While there, he devoted part of his time to running the small mission church of St. Mary in Mokena.

In 1878, the St. Mary Mission was less than 15 years old and numbered only about 30 families. Its small, rural congregation of German-speaking immigrants knew little English. That’s why German priests, like Father Sixt, were essential to keeping the Roman Catholic faith alive in Mokena during the late nineteenth century.

It was roughly a 12-mile journey from St. Joseph Church in Lockport, where Father Sixt resided, to the St. Mary Mission in Mokena. He would likely have made the trip on horseback either weekly or biweekly. His experience in the Bavarian cavalry during youth doubtless made him a seasoned rider, so the 12-mile trek was unlikely to deter him.

It’s worth noting that Father Sixt gained his U.S. citizenship in 1882 while still at St. Mary, a sign that he saw America as his permanent home.

“A Positive Man”

Although little is known about Father Sixt’s specific accomplishments at the St. Mary Mission, his deeds at other parishes are recorded and provide insight into his character and reputation.

For example, Father Sixt was the pastor of St. Alphonsus Church in Lemont during the 1880s where he paid off the parish debt, made building repairs, and was known as a force of good in the community. A biography from 1895 described him as follows:

“Father Sixt is a positive man, and he took hold of the spiritual and temporal affairs with a firm hand and brought together the members of the church….by precept and example, [he] has shown his people how to succeed, and they follow his teachings to a very great degree, for his influence has been and still is great among his parishioners, many of whom he has helped to buy homes.”

Later, Father Sixt served the mission of SS. Peter & Paul in Pilot, Il. There, he made improvements to the seating capacity, installed a high altar, and helped beautify the church.

Old St. Mary Mokena
St. Mary Mission in Mokena, as it looked in the early 20th century.

Father Sixt’s accomplishments at St. Alphonsus and SS. Peter & Paul reveal his generosity and passion for all aspects of parish life. He balanced practical affairs, like church maintenance and finances, with the spiritual well-being of his parishioners, even going above and beyond to help them buy homes. One can infer that he brought these same attitudes to the St. Mary Mission in Mokena.

Father Sixt’s last official assignment came in 1903 when he was appointed pastor of St. Matthias Church in Chicago. He served there for seven years until 1910 when he left for Europe due to poor health. Sadly, he would never return. He died on October 4th, 1910 in a suburb of Nuremberg, likely from heart disease.

The few details known about Father Sixt certainly cannot do him justice. One can only wonder how many people he brought closer to God through his preaching and spiritual guidance. St. Mary Parish can remember Father Sixt as an embodiment of its German roots and as someone who kept the small mission running so that it could eventually become the large church community it is today.

 

 

Bibliography

Album of Genealogy and Biography, Cook County, Illinois: Including the Presidents of the United States: with Portraits. La Crosse, Wi: Brookhaven Press, 1895.

Meyer, J. History of SS. Peter and Pauls Church, Pilot, Illinois: with an Historical Sketch of Sacred Heart Church, Goodrich, Illinois, and St. James Church, Irwin, Illinois, at One Time Forming One Parish: Prefaced by a General Local History. Kankakee, IL: Kankakee Valley Genealogical Society, 1920.

National Archives at College Park; College Park, Maryland, U.S.A.; NAI Number: 302021; Record Group Title: General Records of the Department of State; Record Group Number: Record Group 59; Series Number: Publication A1 205; Box Number: 4408; Box Description: 1910-1929 Germany Le – Wi

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