During a pre-field trip class discussion one summer Thursday, Prof. John Wickersham, PhD, draws a series of crosses on the blackboard, naming each of them as he scratches out distinct shapes: Latin, Bottony, Fleury, Pati, Celtic, crux radians, Maltese. In explaining the origins, he intertwines a bit of Latin, Greek and French.
“There are literally hundreds of variations on crosses,” Wickersham says. Some are convinced he could draw them all, if prompted. Instead, he moves on to significant letters and phrases: INRI – Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum – “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”; IHS – In Hoc Signo Vinces– “In this sign you will conquer.”
The class is also briefed on the day’s itinerary: “We’ll visit a museum in Altenburg before we tour the church. They have a silver chalice they’re very proud of – please be appropriately impressed,” he says, flashing a conspiratorial smile.
Armed with key religious visuals and directions, more than a dozen students and visitors pile into two shuttle buses, headed for several small towns and churches in Missouri.
This is not religion class, by the way. German Churches of Missouri, taught by Wickersham for the past six years in one week summer sessions, is somewhat of a Maryville tradition. The course provides three credit hours in the humanities.
“This is a wake up to a rather extraordinary historical past,” Wickersham later says. “When we talk about ‘Midwestern Values’ we’re really talking about the German American culture which is comprised of home – family – order.”
In the shuttle following Wickersham’s van are two RNs bridging to BSN degrees, a BSN major, a communication student and a near-grad who is finishing up final credit hours for his accounting degree. The driver, Chris Figura, is a military veteran seeking certification in rehabilitation counseling.
Angela Painter has raised seven children and now has eight grandchildren. After working in customer service for a medical distribution company, she has decided to pursue a nursing career.
“Healthcare is always going to be necessary and I’ve always wanted to work with kids, so I’m hoping to work in pediatrics,” she says. She was inspired by her six-year-old grandson who underwent open heart surgery at six months of age.
Figura, who served 15 years in the U.S. Army and six years in the U.S. Air Force, tells his companions that 20 percent of veterans have some sort of disability. He wants to help them heal.
Cameras of all kinds shoot from all angles inside the first stop, Saint Joseph Roman Catholic Church in the town of Zell, some 60 miles southeast of Maryville University. It’s the same scene at each of the other churches: Trinity Lutheran Church in Altenburg and St. Genevieve Catholic Church in St. Genevieve.
The photos will become part of the homework assignment – a combination scrapbook and journal about what students learned and experienced during their week-long journey. Inside and outside each church, students document whatever they can, including stained glass windows, paintings, crosses, statues, ornamental pieces, steeples, light fixtures and natural light, architecture, tombstones, marble carvings, pulpit designs, pews, organs, words and typology, memorials –even the exterior brick of the buildings.
As Wickersham talks about the artisans, the history, and the reason for this or that, students take copious notes, examining closely whatever they can reach. They’re fascinated and sometimes awed by what they see – and finally understand – about the conventions of religion.
The course is an outgrowth of The German Churches Photography Project, which Wickersham pursued from 1992 to 1998. Afterward, his prints were assembled in a show called, “The German Churches of Missouri.” Some of these works will again be exhibited during September in Maryville’s Morton D. May Foundation Gallery.
“The underlying reality is very few people in Missouri appreciate the depth and pervasiveness of the German heritage here,” Wickersham says. “At one time, St. Louis had five daily German-language newspapers.”
The high quality of final projects submitted by students reflects a genuine interest in the subject, a fact that continues to surprise and delight Wickersham. Students are equally pleased to discover the class isn’t boring. During the ride back to campus, they discuss what has impressed them most.
“Wickersham really has a passion and it comes out in his teaching,” says Figura.
“It’s been really interesting. I’ve learned so much about the culture I come from – I’m half German,” Danielle Arter, communication major, says. “It’s nice to get out of the classroom and do some field work. Sometimes classes are so generic. I like that you can really focus on this one subject.”
“Some other classes are so long and drawn out your attention starts to fade before it’s over,” Kesha Terry, nursing student, says. “This class is a little bit of everything, which provides the why.”
Painter agrees: “I like the structure of this course. College should be about drawing out student ideas on all sorts of subjects.”
In talking, it becomes clear that the course has borrowed concepts from a variety of subjects, including theology, philosophy, architecture, history, art and geography.
“It’s down and dirty – a quick, intense way to do a summer class, but summer courses should be different, they should be fun,” Wickersham says.