Mr. Levee, Alfalfa George, Mr. Conservationist
By Randi Brueggemann, Washington High School, 2017 Scholarship Winner
“He demonstrated a love for his parishioners and a real concern for their spiritual and temporal needs. He was energetic, flamboyant, and a person involved in the needs not only of his parish but all of Franklin County.”
Ordained a priest on June 18, 1905, at the age of 24, Father George Hildner dedicated his life to the service of others. He helped introduce protection from flood waters to Perry County during his first assignment as a priest.
Upon his second appointment at St. John the Baptist-Gildehaus, Father Hildner supported his parishioners through a drought and advanced soil conservation for local farmers. To educate the farmers on proper conservation practices, Father Hildner set up a demonstration farm on the property of St. John’s Church. His dedication and humble attitude are what made him beloved by his parishioners.
Father Hildner received his first appointment as a priest in 1915. He was sent to preside over Holy Rosary in Claryville and St. Theresa’s in Lithium, Mo. Hildner spend his first year improving both churches through restoration projects. Hildner wanted to do more, so in 1924, he instigated one of the first parish vocational schools in the United States. Hildner also helped Perry County hold its first county fair. He arranged for state agricultural experts to attend and help educate the community in the advancements of farm and home products.
In 1922 a flood overcame parts of Perry County’s Mississippi River bottoms, damaging farmland and threatening land values. Father Hildner, as chairman of the Perry County Levee Board, advocated the construction of levees in the bottoms to protect the surrounding families and their land. After seven years and two million dollars, Perry County’s Mississippi River bottoms were properly protected from the mighty river. For his efforts in the construction of the levee, Father Hildner received the name “Mr. Levee” from his appreciative parishioners.
After serving Holy Rosary and St. Theresa’s for 19 years, Father Hildner was appointed to St. John the Baptist-Gildehaus in 1934. Father Hildner instigated extensive repairs and extensions to the church and school of St. John the Baptist, beautifying the small parish. During the drought in Franklin County in 1940, Father Hildner located alfalfa hay in Kansas for his parishioners to feed their livestock. He negotiated the crop to half the price and set up a caravan delivery to St. John’s for the local farmers. In doing this, he was nicknamed “Alfalfa George” by local farmers.
Father Hildner immersed himself in the conservation effort while serving at St. John’s. He did not have a background in agriculture or conservation, so he educated himself and then shared his knowledge with the farmers. He used the 33.5 acres church farm to experiment and demonstrate the best agricultural practices. In 1935, Hildner helped educate farmers about the impact of watershed, how to prevent it and how to repair damaged soil through the Dubois Creek Watershed Project. In doing so, he protected the land and ensured its use for generations to come.
He was also active in the conservation of wildlife. In 1937, he sought aid form the newly founded Missouri Conservation Commission to set up a wildlife management area. After Hildner and his parishioners met with the commission, a 23,000-acre wildlife management area was set up and later another 12,000 acres was added.
Father Hildner’s actions as a conservationist advanced agriculture and promoted wildlife preservation in Franklin County and the surrounding areas. On March 20, 1944, Franklin County was the second county in Missouri to introduce a soil conservation district. The local farmlands have been shaped by Father Hildner and will continue to produce bountiful crops because of his actions.
For the work with his parish and community, Father Hildner receive the rank of Right Reverend Monsignor on August 12, 1946, and Protonotary Apostolic Ad Instar on August 27 the same year. He served St. John’s for 33 years until his death on April 27, 1967, at the age of 87.
Many say that he was a “A Savior of Souls” and “A Savior of Soils.” He is buried at his beloved parish of St. John where a special tombstone has been erected in his remembrance. A Mass book is carved into the center of the stone with a candle on the left and a plow on the right. The inscription at the bottom reads, “Priest’s, Priest, Children’s Friend, and Advisor to All.”