The Rev. Jim Kramper moved into his dream home near Newcastle during the fall.
His dream is to share the giant “red barn” with thousands upon thousands of others. That’s the mission Kramper has in retirement at his “Casa de Paz.”
That’s Spanish for “House of Peace.”
“We can host 20 (people) overnight,” says Kramper, a native of nearby Willis, who served 45 years as a priest in 13 Nebraska parishes from Omaha to Newcastle to Emerson and beyond, including Tekamah’s St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. “For day groups, we can host 100.”
Kramper resides on the east end of the two-story structure, a site where the dividing room — or center room — is a hillside chapel of sorts featuring an altar, seven landings, a rock waterfall, a balcony, giant window spaces and a windmill. The room is two-parts rural Nebraska, two-parts church and 100 percent devoted to peace and tranquility.
The windmill towers 23 feet; the 25-foot window peak allows ample sunlight to pass through the structure’s southern exposure.
“An electric motor turns the windmill,” Kramper said. “The windmill turns slowly to make it look like we are pumping into a stock tank that has four koi fish.”
Hundreds of parishioners, friends and volunteers had a hand in building the giant barn-like structure with concrete floors throughout. The finished product realizes a dream for Kramper, who can trace the site’s origin to a cedar structure he and immediate family members built on the family’s timber tract near Willis a quarter-century ago. The old chapel, as it were, fell years ago.
“There’s a picture of the old cedar cabin we built in our timber,” Kramper says while sitting in his living quarters on the east side of Casa de Paz, living quarters that, in reality, amount to no more than a dorm room. “We built that wood cabin, a chapel, really, and people sought peace there for more than 25 years. I had dedicated it to the ‘Calmer of the Storms,’ as I was thinking about weather. But people told me they sought it out to calm other (internal) storms.”
That structure, made simply of cedar logs, gave rise to Casa de Paz.
There is also a tiny chapel just off the main front room at Casa de Paz. The chapel has a pair of stained glass windows depicting Easter and Christmas. There are various works of art showing the crucifix, including one carved from ebony wood that came from Africa.
“Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha came here on Dec. 15 and blessed Casa de Paz and he gave permission for the Blessed Sacrament to be in this chapel,” Kramper says. “So I’m not living alone, as His presence adds to the peace of the house.”
An expansive kitchen features a 6-foot-by-12-foot table made of walnut that can easily seat 16. A “Last Supper” painting decorates one wall, positioned next to a quilt featuring pictures of Kramper, his Casa de Paz and 13 churches he served.
Another wall has a display of trains, including a map of the old train route from Emerson to Hubbard to Sioux City, Iowa. Kramper once walked the abandoned railroad bed that stretched from Emerson to Hubbard.
A pantry allows guests to store whatever food they bring and wish to prepare. There is no dishwasher. Kramper wishes that guests wash and dry their dishes and silverware the old-fashioned way as they stand gazing out upon the bluffs of Dixon County.
Kramper stares at the land, gazing east beyond the 10 acres he owns and says, “Who wouldn’t want to do dishes right here?”
That’s the aim of this retreat: A return to simplicity, the chance to slow down and listen for what really matters.
Not that everything here is stark and devoid of modern-day touches. Kramper laughs at his own excess as he passes from the pantry area down the hall to a phone booth that came from the Sioux City Stockyards. Closing the door to the booth activates a light over the pay phone. Across the hall there’s a collections room that one day will feature more than 400 of Kramper’s piggy banks and hundreds more of his M&M candy figures. He’s amassed more than a few John Wayne pieces of memorabilia that people may examine.
The west side of Casa de Paz is reserved for guests. There are four bathrooms on the guest side, each featuring a walk-in shower. There are a pair of washers and a dryer, as Kramper asks guests to launder bed linen and towels during their stay. There is no set price, he says, as folks are asked to pay whatever they wish via a goodwill offering. Guests are asked to bring their own food supplies, soap, shampoo, etc.
“In some ways, it’s a lot like camping,” says Kramper, who notes that eight of the 10 acres on the tract are covered in timber, allowing those who stay here frequent chances to view wildlife up close.
Guest bedrooms feature a pair of queen-size beds and each side is color-coded, showing bright hues of red, purple, blue, etc., on walls painted by a host of volunteers.
There’s an open room up top, perfect for showing movies or having get-togethers. There’s also a child’s play room on one side, a room with a selection of toys Kramper has picked up through the years as he scours area garage sales, a favorite past-time.
Kramper expects to say Mass on occasion, but the last thing he’d want is to compete in any way with the worship services offered locally. Rather, Kramper’s intent is simply to allow folks the chance to unplug, pray and enjoy the company of one another in his throwback red barn, a “House of Peace” that serves as his retirement home.
After he throws a log into the wood-burning stove, Kramer takes a seat and examines the Stations of the Cross that line those landings in the great room, one whose centerpiece is an altar made of cedar. Shadows of the shimmering water from the stock tank move in the sunlight, adding yet another visual treat for the eyes. And, says Kramper, for the soul.
“The shimmering water is unexpected,” he says with a smile. “A gift from God.”