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Katie Gramlich (left) and Krystal Summers serve German food and drinks to Judy Brooks and her father, Ed Franz, at Christkindl Market at St. Boniface Church in Fort Smith Dec. 2. Maryanne Meyerriecks

Parish highlights German connection with holiday market

German families still make up core of 136-year-old Fort Smith parish, holiday market

Published: December 14, 2023      
Maryanne Meyerriecks
Zach Gramlich dressed as St. Nicholas poses with his daughter Bonnie Gramlich at Christkindl Market at St. Boniface Church in Fort Smith Dec. 2.

FORT SMITH — St. Boniface Church is embracing its German history.

Its annual holiday market got a new name and a new theme this year. The Dec. 2 event was renamed Christkindl Market, featuring traditional German cuisine, photos with St. Nicholas and handcrafted items and artisan goods made by St. Boniface Women’s Craft Group and local craftspeople.

In Germany, prior to the 16th century, holiday gifts were exchanged on the feast of St. Nicholas Dec. 6. Martin Luther introduced the idea of Christkindl (the Christ Child) as the giver of gifts to children on Christmas Eve, hoping that this would focus people’s hearts on the birth of Jesus. Gradually, German Catholics adopted the custom, which is still followed in many European countries and parts of Latin America and Brazil. 

The first Christkindl Market took place in 17th century Nuremberg, and there are now Christkindl Markets all over the world, including the U.S.

“My husband and I visited a Christkindl Market in Tulsa last year, and I thought, ‘We could do that at St. Boniface,’” market chairperson Pam Gramlich said. “We were founded as a German parish and have been cooking German meals for 10-11 years for Catholic Schools Week.”

St. Boniface’s 136-year history began when thousands of German Catholic immigrants came to Arkansas in the 1870s to work for the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad Company, wanting to join a church but experiencing language and cultural difficulties at St. Patrick Church (now Immaculate Conception) in Fort Smith.

In 1887, German families in Fort Smith were given ecclesiastical permission to build St. Boniface Church, and as the population grew, the parish made plans to build its current church in 1937.

“Five generations of Neumeiers have gone to St. Boniface Church and School,” Lisa Neumeier Hearn said. “Benedictine priests were our pastors until 1998, and the Benedictine sisters taught us at school. Sister Vivian (Luyet) was my principal and Sister Elizabeth (Rossi) was my eighth-grade teacher. I set up Mary’s courtyard garden in memory of Sister Mary Ruth (Wewers).”

The descendants of the 50 founding families of St. Boniface are still among the parish’s most active members, passing on the German Benedictine traditions and customs that nurtured their faith.

The proceeds of the Christkindl Market will be used to refurbish the bells from the original church. 

“The rockers aren’t working and we need to repair the computer panel,” Gramlich said. “We want to hear our church bells ringing again.” 

The church refurbished its pipe organ in 2007 and the stained-glass windows, made in Munich, Germany, have been restored and protected against hail and wind damage. Shoppers were invited to attend guided tours of the church from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

While adults browsed through the vendors selling crocheted items, candles, rosaries, Hummel figurines, accessories, jewelry, ornaments, jams, jellies, and even freeze-dried candies, children could visit with St. Nicholas from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and Santa Claus from 4-6 p.m., make crafts and play games.

The aroma of barbequed brats invited customers to stay for lunch in the outdoor dining area. A platter of brats, German potato salad and sauerkraut was reasonably priced, with hot dogs and chips available for the children. Dessert lovers could feast on apple strudel. Many parishioners got take-out boxes to bring home.

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