The cemetery at St. Patrick, Erin Prairie, includes statuary and the graves of many Irish families who settled in the area. (Catholic Herald photo by Joe Winter)
Special to the Catholic Herald
The St. Croix County town of Erin Prairie has one of the highest percentages of Irish-heritage Catholics around. The local parish, St. Patrick, is the center of the town, with its members lingering long after each Sunday service and many of them bringing the celebration across town to the Irish pub – social center of the neighborhood, heavy on game rooms for the children and families – that was run for decades by parishioners. It’s called Mary’s Erin Corners, and even has a softball field with a press box on wooden stilts and lots of log-built spectator seating.
Today’s owners are relatively new, although with ties to the pub, and they plan to add on and keep the same old Catholic Irish lilt.
The town of Erin Prairie was settled by Irish Catholics as one of the first localities in the state, and the cemetery at St. Patrick’s still has many of their founders’ tombstones, and some of these hardworking farmers only lived into their 30s, and now it has many thousands of gravesites – several times the number of people in the entire town, which has several hundred. But the church, in the heart of mostly populous and commuter-based St. Croix County, is popular enough to require a second parking lot across the main county highway that runs through town.
Some of the tombstones are crumbling, whether small squares in the grass or steeple-shaped spires, and an effort is underway to refurbish the old cemetery, with a first phase already having raised $10,000 from the relatively small congregation.
In the midst of the cemetery is a large crypt-like structure built of hundreds of small, rather nondescript stones, open at the very front, that shows a U.S. flag with the crucified Christ below, then below that, two life-size women who appear to be the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene facing each other, and in front of them, two life-size stone angels blowing trumpets.
At the front corner of the cemetery is a series of about a dozen gravestones bearing the name of the family Gavin. Such identification is a theme throughout the cemetery, which dates back well over a century, probably closer to two. Prominent on them is an engraving of the date of birth and death, and spelled out is the age they achieved. About every Irish name you can think of is represented.
St. Patrick’s is called a “quaint” country church, seated amidst the lush farmlands of St. Croix County. The pub that’s just down the road from St. Patrick’s is a stopping place, especially later on Sundays, for snowmobilers who run the circuit from Roberts and Hammond. On a recent Sunday mid-afternoon when the St. Patrick’s crowd was filtering in, they were joined by several snowmobilers.
At the pub, a sign that is the gateway shows a green leprechaun superimposed over a green state cutout of – oops – Minnesota. A sign on a bathroom door advertises a Friday fish fry at Immaculate Conception in New Richmond, and a summer goal at this classic community pub is to have more offerings for games for local 4-Hers. Its main room is heavy on tables that seat families. The recent Irish holiday was celebrated with the traditional corned beef and cabbage.
The new manager, Cassie Sahnow, who for years has lived kitty-corner across the street, is just as likely to haul out a pizza to a family as pour a drink to a customer – and many times they get a large water or pop for the parents and the kids.
“I’m a bit Irish but mostly German,” Sahnow said.
The owners have opened a bigger game room in the back, the size of several large rooms, with pool tables and video games, and also a patio that caters to families and their age-appropriate children.
Many of the Irish descendants of those who settled Erin Prairie still worship here. The longtime companion pub is now called the Bases Loaded Saloon, and the new owners of less than a year, from Hammond just to the south, have pledged to keep up all those local traditions that have sprung from being Irish Catholic. A goal is to be open on a more consistent basis than the pub had been and also to bring in live music.
The cemetery is dozens of times larger than the church building, and is surrounded by small woodlots, an old farmhouse and a modern farm.
Only three Minnesota cities across the way are above 20 percent Irish and almost all are small in population. At last measure, it’s at 15.2 percent Irish in Erin Prairie, among the 700-plus residents in town. Irish lineage averages at 3.6 percent across the state as a whole.
Several employees from St. Patrick’s cluster parish, Immaculate Conception in New Richmond, which is about 10 miles away and shares its pastor, Fr. John Anderson, noted that many parishioners have long frequented there, making it in that way a true Irish-style community pub.