Christmas Country Church Tour lights up
southeast Missouri’s heritage and traditions

Mary Jane Buchheit of Apple Creek had an idea. Inspired by a Christmas home tour, she asked her parish priest about decorating their church rectory and opening it to visitors for the holiday season. The priest proposed they open the church for tours instead.

“Call the pastor at Grace Lutheran Church at Uniontown to see if they’ll do it, too,” he suggested. So Mary Jane did, and from that simple phone call, six churches in Perry County joined together for the first Christmas Country Church Tour.

That was seventeen years ago. The 2021 tour, set for December 16-17, encompasses more than  thirty churches in tiny hamlets, villages, and towns spread across Perry, Bollinger, Ste. Genevieve and Cape Girardeau counties in southeastern Missouri, and one in Kaskaskia, Ill. All but three of the church buildings are more than 100 years old; three churches recently celebrated their 200th anniversaries.

St. Mary’s of the Barrens – Perryville
Adorned with murals and paintings, the interior of St. Mary’s of the Barrens in Perryville also features high Roman arches and domes.
Photos courtesy of Perry County Heritage Tourism

Each church on the free, self-guided driving tour is staffed with volunteers eager to share information about the church’s history and traditions.“We focus on altars, bells, windows, pews, and other elements that make each church unique and special,” says Trish Erzfeld, Perry County Heritage Tourism director. “And the fact that these are all rural, country churches.”

Some of the church buildings no longer support active congregations and are only open a few times a year for special events, like Old McKendree Chapel in Jackson, the first Protestant church established west of the Mississippi River. St. Mary’s of the Barrens Catholic Church Association of the Miraculous Medal in Perryville was the first seminary west of the Mississippi River.

A few of the churches are located in villages that no longer exist according to GPS; Trish advises visitors to download the free brochure and map to preplan their routes. Cell phone service in some locations is spotty. A few of the church buildings predate electricity and indoor plumbing. Trish notes those few churches with outhouses are popular photo opportunities for urban visitors.

Organizers believe it is the first Christmas church tour of its kind; in fact, the tour received the Pathfinder Award—which recognizes an event or organization successfully developing a niche tourism market—at the 2021 Missouri Governor’s Conference on Tourism. Trish has fielded inquiries from communities as far away as Canada interested in starting similar tours in their areas, while the people who want to move to this town, learning the right moving expenses can be useful for this.

At age 87, Mary Jane is just one of more than 400 volunteers it takes to successfully host the tour.

“I think it’s wonderful the way all the different denominations reach out to each other and share a common bond,” says Mary Jane, who organized the tour for nearly a decade before Trish stepped in. “People always thank us for doing this. But it’s the Holy Spirit moving through things like this, I really believe that.”

For more information, contact Perry County Heritage Tourism at (573) 517-2069 or connect with the Christmas Country Church Tour on Facebook.

All photos courtesy of Perry County Heritage Tourism