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Dr. Jeannie Sitzer stands in front of St. Anthony in Weiner Aug. 13. Part of Sitzer’s doctoral dissertation included getting the parish on the state’s historic register. Dr. Jeannie Sitzer sits inside St. Anthony Church in Weiner, founded in 1906 and rebuilt after fires in 1931 and 1936, was recently added to the state’s Historical Register. Photo by Jeannie Sitzer. A view of the St. Anthony church interior from the main entrance. On the walls above the framing of the altar reads the Latin quote “Adoro te devote latens deitas,” translated as “I adore thee devoutly, hidden God.” Courtesy Jeannie Sitzer. Roman numerals on the cornerstone of St. Anthony in Weiner translates to the year 1936. Photo by Jeannie Sitzer. This black and white photo shows the St. Anthony Church rectory in 1928. Courtesy Jeannie Sitzer. Children from St. Anthony School eat ice cream beside the former Weiner school building, 1921. Courtesy Jeannie Sitzer. This class photo from 1935 at St. Anthony School was taken in front of St. Anthony Church in Weiner. Among parishioners and school children are Father Otto Butterbach (1938-1947), Sister Selesai, Sister Jerome, and Sister Paula. Courtesy Jeannie Sitzer. A 1925 photo shows the Catholic Knights of America in Weiner posed with their families in front of St. Anthony Church. Courtesy Jeannie Sitzer.

Homework places church on state's historic register

Dissertation leads to Weiner parish’s new designation, nomination heads for nationals

Published: August 18, 2023      
Gary Sitzer
Dr. Jeannie Sitzer stands in front of St. Anthony in Weiner Aug. 13. Part of Sitzer’s doctoral dissertation included getting the parish on the state’s historic register.

When Dr. Jeannie Sitzer started pursuing her doctorate, she had no idea that her degree would lead to putting her parish on the Arkansas Register of Historic Places.

“I decided to go back to school and get my PhD. I was 60 when I started, and I asked them how long it would take. They told me five years because I’d be going at night, and I realized I’d be 65 whether I go through this or not. I really like history, so I entered into the Heritage Studies Department,” at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Sitzer said. 

Sitzer, who lives in Weiner, has spent 43 years teaching first and second grade math, science and social studies. She would make the 20-mile drive to Jonesboro once a week for her evening classes. Her advisor Dr. Edward Salo taught her a skill that would prove useful for her parish’s future. 

“The things that he assigned us to do were so interesting — going on Main Street, where we would be assigned a building and we'd go and research it as to when it was first developed and what business it might've been and what it is now. It was about the history of the building, with the different people that had gone through there,” Sitzer said.

“We teach the students to be able to do research on places, buildings and sites using all different methods, from looking through documents, deeds and any kind of papers they may have to conducting oral interviews,” Salo told Arkansas Catholic. “You never know where your research is going to get you. A lot of times, they may not have all the records for whatever reason … A lot of times, importance may not be in the paperwork, but it’s in how people use and feel about the place … It gives these places a rallying cry, and heritage tourism can also help with economics.”

As Sitzer looked for places to research, she realized one had been hiding in plain sight -- her parish, St. Anthony in Weiner. 

“My husband has always been involved in the church,” Sitzer said. “It’s generational to be involved, and I saw how dedicated he was to it, and it’s a beautiful church. And I thought, ‘You know, this is something I would like very much to investigate, to see the history of.’ And so that became my dissertation.”

For Sitzer, everything “just fell into place.”

“With St. Anthony’s, it was easy. I had the records. I was able to find a lot of records and pictures. The parishioners were very good with showing me pictures and explaining things to me. And the interviews were really interesting,” Sitzer said.

When she met her husband Gary in 1983, she said she became intrigued in his family’s devotion to the Church. 

“I was Baptist when I met him, and he loved being Catholic, staying Catholic and St. Anthony’s, and there was going to be no variant from it,” Sitzer said. “I became very involved too. When we decided to marry, I became Catholic. We got married there, our children were baptized there, and we’ll be buried there.”

Sitzer said fellow parishioners have been proud of the historic project and giving the church the recognition it deserves. Sitzer’s research uncovered just how much the church has changed through personal anecdotes that Sitzer found since St. Anthony was built.  

St. Anthony was established in 1906, and Bishop Edward M. Fitzgerald dedicated the church. Bishop John B. Morris helped secure funds to rebuild the church following a fire in 1931, and another in 1936. This time, the church was built out of North American yellow bricks, with a bell tower at the church’s peak. 

“Not only has the church changed, but this church’s structure too. We lost two (of the parish buildings) to fire before. This third one is basically old school. It’s got the traditional statues and altar and stained glass windows. There are a lot of modern Catholic churches now on campuses and things for young people. But (St. Anthony) is my ideal Catholic church. I’m an old school person, so this is what I like,” Sitzer said.

Even though Sitzer received her doctorate in 2021, her fascination with history and devotion to her parish spurred her to take her research one step further. Sitzer submitted her research on St. Anthony to the state review board of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program for consideration to be included in the Arkansas Register of Historic Places, in addition to the National Register of Historic Places.

An 11-member committee appointed by the governor met Aug. 2, and according to the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism chief communications officer Shealyn Sowers, “The Review Board unanimously passed the nomination for the church, and we will now forward the nomination to the National Park Service for review.”

Salo said it is important to recognize historic places in Arkansas.

“In Arkansas, there’s a lot of things that are important to communities in the state that deserve that recognition. Unfortunately, for various reasons, we haven’t been as active as other states, and hopefully that’s changing. It’s important to have these places recognized so that they can be preserved,” Salo said. “I didn’t know the story of the Catholics (in Weiner) until (Sitzer) started bringing it up. It’s important to tell those kinds of stories.”

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