The way it was: Parish bowling alleys part of La Crosse Diocese’s 150-year history | Local

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, 2018-03-17 15:14:55

Gene Jirsa has many fond memories of bowling at the two-lane alley in the Holy Trinity parish hall in La Crosse, but one incident stands out and still brings a head-shaking smile to his face.

Another bowler became so angry when the 10 pin refused to drop that he hurled his own body down the alley knocked it down, the 83-year-old Jirsa said as he reminisced about the final parish bowling alley in La Crosse.

“He didn’t like the 10 pin — well, no bowler does,” Jirsa said, chuckling.

Ten pins have an ugly habit of being more like elephants superglued to the alley than wobbly targets — bowlers of a strikes and spares.

Holy Trinity’s alley in Leo Hall closed in 1985, long after the hum of rolling balls, the din crashing pins and the invocations of God’s name — raised in praise of great shots, of course, rather than curses over gutter balls, splits, baby splits and buckets — had fallen silent at other parishes.

“Back in those days, a lot of parishes had them” to raise a little extra money to bolster church coffers, as well as provide a social activity for members, Jirsa said, adding, “St. Wenc had one, the old Cathedral school had one …”

Jirsa and his wife, Sharon, were recalling the days when parishes had alleys as well as altars. Their recollections were in response to research on the 150th anniversary of the Diocese of La Crosse. The official sesquicentennial date was March 3, marked with a special Mass that day celebrated by Bishop William Callahan at St. Gabriel Church in Prairie du Chien. Other sesquicentennial events will take place throughout the diocese into the fall.

Bowling alleys were but a small part of the fabric of parish life in the La Crosse Diocese as it evolved from a few folks worshiping in each other’s scattered homes to a 19-county diocese with churches ranging from simple designs to ornate structures.

Jirsa described his average of 188 as “not bad for an old fart. I’ve been bowling for 50-60 years.”

“They were hard alleys,” he said. “One fall, and you would be sore for a long time. In those days, there was no oil like they do now.”

The games were friendly, with a competitive edge, too, Jirsa said, pulling a tiny, yellowed newspaper clipping from his equally time-worn wallet.

The clipping, from a sports agate page in the Oct. 16, 1984, Tribune, chronicled the scores of the Jirsa brothers/fathers/sons team of Gene and son Greg, and Gene’s brother Jim and his son, Tim.

The Jirsa men made print for recording the high series of 2,848 and high team game of 980.

“They only put four names in, and I said if the four of us ever got listed together, that would be something,” Jirsa said, tucking the treasured keepsake back into his billfold. “You don’t see that all that often.”

Holy Trinity’s alleys promoted camaraderie as well as rivalry among the eight teams in the parish’s league, in addition to teams from other parishes, congregations and businesses — not to mention the hundreds of people who rolled a few games during open bowling.

Cigar and cigarette smoke swirled on bowling nights as surely as incense curled to the heavens during Sunday morning Masses. With beer sales frowned upon in parish buildings, the Holy Trinity keglers came up with a striking way to skirt that rule.

“The old Strassers Tavern was about a block away, and all the guys would go over there and buy a six pack before we bowled,” Gene said of the bar at 1310 Denton St., which has changed hands and names a couple of times since the Strasser family sold it in 1995, but now is called Strassers again.

Even though the maple and pine alleys were nowhere near the quality of the maples and pines — and often, synthetic — alleys of today, bowlers still were required to wear shoes to protect the surfaces, Gene said.

“They tried to take care of the lanes as best they could,” he said.

“They used a cone of chalk because they didn’t have hand dryers back then,” said Sharon, who didn’t bowl often but gave the pins a beating when she did, according to her husband. “It was just to keep the ball loose so it didn’t stick to your thumb.”

The Holy Trinity Men’s Club operated the alleys and gave most of the proceeds to the parish, reserving the rest for parties and other activities, Gene said.

Leo Hall was built in 1898, and the difficult decision to tear out the bowling alleys was the result of the need to remodel and expand the hall, according to a Tribune article on April 20, 1985, reporting the alleys finishing frames in its final fracas between the Holy Trinity Men’s Club and Schmidty’s Bar and Restaurant.

The two, 10-pin alleys were installed in Leo Hall in 1929, although the story noted that two nine-pin alleys preceded them. Pin boys spotted the pins by hand until mechanical pinsetters were installed in 1937. Even then, though, pin boys were still at their posts, putting the pins into the setters by hand.

The youths who served those roles were paid the princely sum of $15 a night for four hours’ work — not bad for the times.

During the final championship game, a radio behind the men’s club team blared Bob Uecker’s account of a Milwaukee Brewers game, while team members sipped Old Style beer from aluminum cans between turns, according to the Tribune chronicle. The Schmidty’s team limited its members to a bottle of Kingsbury beer apiece.

The Schmidty’s team, which included Bernard, Clarence and Fritz Hegenbarth, and Frank and Ted Bakalars, was as stubborn as a 10 pin, but the Holy Trinity team, which featured the talents of Mike Brown and Gene, Greg, Jim and Tim Jirsa, proved victorious in the final tilt.

The outcome underscored the taunt from one of the Jirsas: “Four of a kind beats a full house.”

“There were a lot of good times had by all,” Gene said.

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