NEWCASTLE, Neb. | The Rev. Jim Kramper stokes his fire, both literally and figuratively, on a crisp, clear morning north and east of Newcastle.
Fresh off a 3-inch snow, the 10 acres he owns in the bluffs near the Missouri River practically shine beneath clear blue skies. Gazing south across the horizon, one easily sees a pair of deer tracks jutting across a hill, a connect-the-dots pattern.
The dots are being connected here for Kramper, who's "fired up" about his life's next stage, here at Casa de Paz, his "House of Peace" near Newcastle.
"This is a slice of paradise I will live in," Kramper says as he takes an axe to split a piece of wood for the fire that warms the red barn he'll occupy permanently once construction wraps up this summer.
Kramper isn't building the giant structure for just himself, though. His Casa de Paz is meant for others to enjoy as well, a retreat, or an oasis in the timber, as it were, for people, for families, to come and park their cars for a couple of days, allowing themselves to slow their pace while recharging their souls.
"When you look at it from above, the barn almost looks like a cross," says Kramper, a 1965 Bishop Heelan High School graduate. "I wasn't planning it that way. But it's neat it came out that way."
Kramper, a native of nearby Willis, Nebraska, was ordained as a priest on May 26, 1973. Since that time -- 45 years -- the priesthood is what Kramper has known, having served 13 Nebraska parishes from Omaha to Newcastle to Emerson to Clearwater. He retired in August and intends to serve parishes in-need along the Highway 12 corridor in Nebraska.
Those assignments, though, won't be long-term. The arrangement allows Kramper to devote much of his attention to Casa de Paz, a structure with guestrooms and all sorts of space for families to stretch out and enjoy themselves, his guests.
The idea might trace its origin to a cedar structure Kramper and friends constructed 25 years ago on his family's timber stand near Willis. "A group of young adults in three days built a cedar chapel near Willis along the river," he says. "So many people found peace there. It no longer stands, but it planted the seed for a structure that could serve others."
A few years ago, Kramper purchased 10 acres of timber along the bluffs north and east of Newcastle. Last summer, he embarked on a plan to have a barn-like facility built on the hillside.
"A friend of mine built an 8-foot model and I kept showing it to people," Kramper says. "And people kept calling it a mansion."
Kramper soon favored the barn appearance because nobody refers to a barn as a mansion. Rather, people simply talk about a big barn. That connotation in a lower key pleases the old priest.
"We go so fast and we go so many places," Kramper says. "This is a place to give your car and yourself a rest."
Casa de Paz, set in a corner of the world where deer, turkeys and the occasional cougar roams, will have laying hens for eggs and a pair of donkeys to help clear trails in the woods. Inside, Kramper has already positioned a windmill, one that will be operational, hooked to a stock tank for goldfish.
"The windmill used to be the flagship for a farm," Kramper says. "This one turns with a motor and has an old pump at its base."
Just north of the windmill will be seven carpeted landings, each separated by three steps. This area will allow people to sit and meditate, prayer or converse quietly. Running through the center of the landings? A narrow waterfall, of course.
"There will be no pews," Kramper says. "But people can sit on either side of the waterfall and observe as I celebrate morning Mass during the week."
Turning to the east, Kramper moves past a couple of small rooms that will serve him for his worship and living quarters. To the south there's a large dining room set adjacent to a kitchen that looks east, toward the sunrise.
"We'll have four sinks beneath the kitchen windows," he says. "We won't have a dishwasher. We'll wash dishes the old-fashioned way, visiting with one another as we do it."
The west side of Casa de Paz is reserved for guests. Two sets of stairs lead to a pair of guestrooms above, as well as a bath and shower. There's even a guest laundry area where folks may launder their bedding if they wish in order to stay for free.
On the main floor, all of which is poured concrete, a fire crackles in a wood-burning stove. Kramper even has a decoration made from the door of the wood-burning stove he used to open and close as a child at Willis.
Kramper has established Casa de Paz as a nonprofit corporation. He's paying for the construction of his dream retreat while relying on the goodwill of others. It isn't a cheap endeavor. He notes he's already raised more than $100,000 to get the project going. Should anyone wish to invest, they may reach out to him through the Omaha Archdiocese or see his Casa de Paz site at www.youcaring.com/buildinghisdream.
His "paradise" -- the land and the structure -- according to Kramper, will be sold when the old priest passes from his earthly life. The money from that sale will ultimately go to the archdiocese for its priest and seminary funds.
As he splits another log for the fire, Kramper exhales and smiles, turning to give his dream a panoramic look. "We hope to be done with the building this summer," he says. "I am so excited for what it will be."