Father Tibesar Rollingstone’s Voice of the Land
by Ron Kroese
Director, Land Stewardship Project
In 1980, 73 Midwestern Catholic Bishops endorsed a lengthy public statement on land tenure, stewardship and rural life, entitled “Strangers and Guests: Toward Community in the Heartland.” The statement, drawn from testimony taken at more than 400 public hearings in 12 Midwestern states, addresses land issues from a moral perspective, urging all Christians to take to heart the Biblical admonition for stewardship of the gifts of creation. A scripture-based call for proper treatment and equitable distribution of the land, the statement takes its title from the Book of Leviticus (25:23), wherein God tells the Israelites, “Land must not be sold in perpetuity, for the land belongs to me, and to me you are only strangers and guests.”
Under the leadership of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference in Des Moines, the issues addressed in the statement are being presented to Catholics through programs held in parishes throughout the Midwest. Last year, in an effort to carry out the values and goals expressed in the “Strangers and Guests” bishops’ statement on a broader, ecumenical basis, the Rural Life Conference initiated a program known as The Land Stewardship Project in conjunction with a variety of Protestant denominations in the Midwest.
Through a series of public education programs and activities in high erosion counties in the Upper Midwest the Project seeks to raise public awareness about the problems of soil erosion and farmland loss to development and the threat those problems pose to what remains of the family farm structure and the long-term sustainability of the nation’s food supply. In cooperation with local churches in those counties, the Stewardship Project’s leaders are encouraging a number of persons — clergy, teachers, conservation farmers, agribusiness officials — to become “voices of the land” in their communities. Each of these persons then works locally, within his or her sphere of influence, to instill a land ethic among his or her neighbors, an ethic based on love for the land and concern for its proper care and use. Each local “voice” serves as a model and teacher within his or her circle — an example of what one person can do for the land.
The leaders of the Land Stewardship Project have confidence in this approach because there is ample evidence in the life of a southeastern Minnesota man that it can work. That man, who died in 1946, was a rural parish priest named Peter Tibesar, “Father Pete” to his many friends. Father Tibesar both lived and taught land stewardship decades before the values he espoused and expressed were officially sanctioned by his church in its “Strangers and Guests” statement. Through his life’s work he became a virtual St. Francis to those who lived and worked around him. The proof of his influence in his community remains in picturesque evidence today in the rich, rolling farmland surrounding Rollingstone, Minnesota, the village where he served as parish priest during the 1930’s and 40’s.
One of nine children, he was born on a farm near a neighboring town in Winona County on August 16, 1882. His nephew, Leo Tibesar of Rollingstone, remembers him fondly and believes that his uncle in large measure inherited his respect and love for the land from his father (Antoine “Anton” Tibesar) who had emigrated from Belgium. The family had farmed near the Belgium/Luxembourg border.
Ordained in 1910, he became a priest at Holy Trinity Church in Rollingstone in 1930. Leo Tibesar remembers that his uncle’s feelings about the land came into evidence shortly after his arrival. On the acreage surrounding the church sat a large abandoned building which until a few years before had served as a dormitory for a by-then defunct Catholic girls’ school. Rather than having the old dorm razed as had been planned, Father Pete convinced his parishioners to help him convert the building into a barn. He then used the barn to house a variety of birds, particularly pheasants, wild turkeys and native waterfowl, which he bred and raised.
He then enclosed the entire 15-acre school grounds with an eight-foot fence. Trees were planted within the hilly enclosure; indigenous plants and wildflowers were transplanted within it. As much as possible with the help of his parishioners, the acreage was restored to the blend of rolling prairie and broad leaf forest it had been before the arrival of white settlers. The acreage included some swampy bottom land on which the priest had an embankment constructed and a well dug for a pond for fish and waterfowl, including his favorite, white swans. When the landscaping was completed, the acreage was repopulated with the birds he had raised. In addition, a small herd of white-tail deer were brought in, along with a few of another of his favorite birds, peacocks.
Through his own labor and with the help of friends and parishioners, and at very little monetary expense, Father Tibesar created a menagerie and wildlife preserve which those who can remember those depression years recall in fondest terms. Until his death Father Tibesar continued to improve the preserve, leading summertime excursions of parishioners’ children into nearby forests in search of native plants and flowers to transplant in the preserve. The pond became a favorite ice-skating rink for Rollingstone’s children and visitors were always welcome, at no charge, to wander through the preserve. Most received guided tours from Father Pete himself, who never tired of walking the paths pointing out natural attractions which the untrained eye might have missed.
Lovely as it was, Father Tibesar‘s nature area was not his principal contribution to conservation. In fact, after his death no one in the area was willing or able to assume responsibility for the preserve, a lamentable situation now described with considerable regret by those who look back fondly to the pleasant times they enjoyed there. Soon after his death the deer were released — as he had requested in his will — and the other inhabitants were either freed or donated to other facilities. Today there remains little evidence that the preserve ever existed.
Nonetheless, Father Tibesar is remembered by local conservation professionals as the man who, perhaps more than any other single individual, contributed to the cause of soil conservation in Winona County. In this regard, his influence remains very much in evidence.
Father Tibesar‘s work for soil conservation is remembered by William Sillman, retired federal district soil and water conservation officer in Winona County. Himself an important figure in the soil and water conservation movement in southeastern Minnesota, Sillman served as district conservationist in Winona County from the first days of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service until retiring in 1975.
Sillman tells of coming to Winona County in 1936 and discovering that even though the Conservation Service had been in existence for only one year and was receiving a lukewarm reception from farmers in much of the county, several farmers in the Rollingstone area were eager to have him lay out conservation plans on their farms. Sillman recalls:
“When I looked into why the farmers around Rollingstone and Altura — most of them were Luxembourgers too — were willing to sign up, I found out that it was because Father Tibesar had been preaching soil conservation from the pulpit. He told them in no uncertain terms that they were sinning if they didn’t take care of their land. Not only that, he went out and visited farmers in his parish to encourage them to adopt soil conservation measures. He also encouraged other priests in the county to preach about conservation. He was a tremendous influence.”
According to conservationist Sillman, Father Tibesar was moved to become a voice for soil stewardship in 1935 after visiting the first two farms in Winona County where the owners had implemented Soil Conservation Service — supervised conservation structures and practices. Imbued with a conservation ethic nurtured by his own experience with his wildlife preserve, and concerned about the serious erosion problem in his home county, Father Tibesar quickly grasped the importance of the soil conservation program and was eager to do what he could to support it.
Sillman points out that the priest’s enthusiastic commitment was all the more important because, in those early days of the soil conservation movement, many of the neighbors of those pioneering conservation farmers thought they were crazy, and weren’t afraid to say so. Sillman says Father Tibesar helped turn that situation around and over the course of the next decade he helped persuade scores of farmers around Rollingstone to work with the Soil Conservation Service.
Father Tibesar was buried in the Holy Trinity Church Cemetery at Rollingstone, his grave only a short distance from the site of his nature preserve. The preserve is gone, but the conservation ethic he helped instill nearly two generations ago remains solidly in place, even though the average farm size in that predominantly dairy county has nearly doubled.
The area around Rollingstone is some of the prettiest farm country that can be found in the U.S. today. It’s one of those special places where the nurturing hand of man appears to have actually enhanced the handiwork of nature. The steep hillsides and creek bottoms are, for the most part, preserved in woodlands, while the gentler hills are covered in pasture or planted in contour strips of short grains and corn, with man-made conservation ponds dotting many fields. It is a beautiful and productive testament to the dedication and work of many farmers and conservationists, but it owes its beginnings primarily to the voice of one man, Father Peter Tibesar of Rollingstone.