Some Sauerkraut with Your Schnitzelbank?

22, February 2012

Thirty years ago, in 1982, I was invited to attend the Fasching Sonntag at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Baden. I had no idea what a Fasching Sonntag was, but it sounded like an interesting change from the usual date of dinner and a movie or concert.

Baden fascinated me. Although I had lived in St. Louis for several years, I was only familiar with the central corridor from downtown to the West End, and felt disoriented on the rare occasions I strayed from my comfort zone. Baden is wedged into the northern end of the city, abutted by railroad tracks and Calvary Cemetery on the south and Bellefontaine Neighbors and Jennings to the north and west. The layout of Baden makes its small-town atmosphere particularly strong: the “main street,” which is the northernmost segment of Broadway, extends for several blocks, with small businesses along both sides and residential streets spreading beyond them.

Holy CrossCatholic Church of the Holy Cross, renamed Our Lady of the Holy Cross in 1993 when merged with Our Lady of Mount Carmel. (The parish hall is the building at the rear of the church). Missouri History Museum.

Soaring over all other structures in Baden is the steeple of Holy Cross. The parish was founded in 1864 by German, Irish, and French residents. By the time Baden was annexed to the city of St. Louis in 1872, there were twice as many Irish families as German, but German priests were still assigned to lead them. The unhappy Irish families formed their own parish, Mount Carmel, farther north in Baden, and Holy Cross, a block west of Broadway on Church Road, became an official German parish. The congregation outgrew the original church, and the present building was erected in 1909. Despite the changes of time and shifting demographics, German traditions have remained a part of Holy Cross.

Fasching is one of the names for the pre-Lenten festivities in the German-speaking countries of Europe. Called Karnival in some areas and Fastnacht in others, the celebrations have regional variations, but all include parades, balls, and large amounts of beer consumption, beginning with Epiphany in early January and lasting through the eve of Ash Wednesday. Fasching originated in Bavaria and parts of Austria, and Fasching Sonntag is the name for the “feast before the fast” at Holy Cross, held the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.

In 1982, Fasching Sonntag was still a major event at Holy Cross, attended by current and former parishioners from near and far, Baden residents, and anyone who liked a good party. Preparations were begun far in advance, and by the big day, the men had made endless links of sausage; the cafeteria and church hall were decorated with German flags, symbols, and bunting; the polka band was ready to perform; and kegs of beer had been delivered. The food service began at noon, after the last mass. Over plates loaded with sausage, sauerkraut, potatoes, beans, corn, beets, applesauce, and rye bread, and glasses of beer or soda, extended families, long-lost friends, and new acquaintances passed the time in conversation, making room for new arrivals through the long afternoon.

Schnitzel BankSchnitzel Bank song chart. Lithograph by John Bardenheier Wine and Liquor Co., ca. 1900. Missouri History Museum.

In the evening, everyone moved upstairs to the parish hall, which was the typical multipurpose gymnasium with a stage at one end. Set up with long tables in parallel rows on both sides, the band in place on the stage, and the large crowd ready for the music to begin, the hall had lost its bland, bare, everyday atmosphere. On the stage, off to one side, was a large easel with a poster on it. I didn’t pay much attention to it, thinking it was for announcements later in the evening. The band started, and the dancing began in the clear space down the middle of the hall, mostly polkas and waltzes, with a few variety numbers like the dreaded Duck Dance, which explained the need for pitchers of beer. Finally, when the crowd was well exercised and well lubricated, someone approached the easel with a pointer in his hand. People started shouting “Schnitzelbank! Schnitzelbank!” The music began, and the person with the pointer called “Ist das nicht ein Schnitzelbank?” and the crowd heartily responded “Ja, das ist ein Schnitzelbank!” Then came a chorus of music, to which everyone sang, “O Die Schoenheit un der Vand, da das ist ein Schnitzelbank.” And so it continued for several verses, the person on stage pointing to another object on the poster with “Ist das nicht ein.…?” and the crowd responding at the top of their voices. I was puzzled at first, but eventually joined in and didn’t think much more about it. I’m pretty sure that only a few people knew all the German words, and that some had memorized it over the years, while the ones in front were close enough to the poster to read the words under the pictures—everyone else just shouted a cheerful approximation of what they thought their neighbor was saying.

Group of menGroup of men, members of the North End Royal Arcanum, outdoors in shirtsleeves, with Schnitzel Bank poster produced by Bardenheier Wine Company. Photograph by unknown, early 20th century. Missouri History Museum.

The Schnitzelbank, or Schnitzel Bank, is a song with short verses, meant to be sung the way it was at the Fasching Sonntag, with a leader and group response. It is sung in some areas of Germany for Fasching, Fastnacht, or Karnival, and also during Oktoberfest, and other occasions where there is a happy, celebratory crowd. In America, the posters are displayed at a few German restaurants and some tourist attractions with a German American heritage, such as the Amana Colonies in Iowa and some Pennsylvania Dutch locations. Singing the Schnitzelbank in America dates at least to the turn of the 20th century, which is when the John Bardenheier Wine and Liquor Company printed its version on an advertising poster.

In 2012, Holy Cross is now Our Lady of the Holy Cross, the result of a merger with Our Lady of Mount Carmel more than 100 years after the two parishes split. The school has closed, and many of the parishioners of 1982 have moved away or passed away. There is no longer a Fasching Sonntag party in the parish hall, and no Schnitzelbank to be sung. But traditions die hard, and although the sausage now is purchased instead of made on site, the Fasching Sonntag dinner continues every year, and it is still a time for extended families and long-absent friends to converse over loaded plates. I was there this weekend with the date who took me to my first Fasching Sonntag thirty years ago; we had our church wedding at Holy Cross, and lived in Baden for several years. It is good to go back on special occasions, to reminisce about the past and to make new memories for the future.

—Ellen Messerly Thomasson, Public Service Coordinator