Iowa priest-photographer surprised by appeal of viral cattle cross image

Father Michael G. Schueller’s viral photo of a cattle cross set up by the Grotto family is seen Dec. 23, 2019, on their farm in Bankston, Iowa. Father Schueller, pastor of St. Elizabeth Pastorate, which includes St. Clement Parish, pilots drones in his spare time and enjoys taking aerial photographs. (CNS photo/courtesy Father Michael Schueller)

By Dan Russo 
Catholic News Service

BANKSTON, Iowa (CNS) — It wasn’t a miracle, but the scene that unfolded on Dan and Judy Gotto’s farm in Bankston shortly before Christmas became a beautiful testament to faith.

On Dec. 23, 2019, members of the family had carefully laid out many small piles of cattle feed in the shape of a giant cross on one of their fields, attracting 171 hungry cows into planned position. In the distance, the steeple of St. Clement Church in Bankston reached upward toward a clear sky.

At the right moment, Father Michael Schueller sprang into action. The pastor of the St. Elizabeth Pastorate, which includes St. Clement Parish, pilots drones in his spare time and enjoys taking aerial photographs.

The priest flew his camera equipped remote-controlled device high above the herd, capturing both still shots and video and posted the image of the Angus beef livestock appearing in the shape of the sacred symbol on his Facebook page.

Almost immediately, the image went viral. There were dozens of comments, hundreds of shares, and the image was featured with an article in the Telegraph Herald, the area’s biggest daily newspaper, which ran the story with the headline: “Holy cow: Bankston cattle photo going viral ahead of Christmas.”

Thousands have seen the photograph and its impact continues weeks after the priest took the shot.

“I am humbled by the response from the photo,” Father Schueller told The Witness, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Dubuque. “I have received many messages from people far and wide, and it has been shared many times — such a simple image that has connected with so many people.”

The inspiration for the photo came from the Gottos’ desire to integrate their Catholic faith into their farming. Judy and Dan work land that has been in the family since 1889. Many other relatives also are in the agriculture business, including their son Chad Gotto, who is also a full-time farmer. Most of the cows in the photo are his. This successful effort to capture a cross wasn’t the first time they had tried.

He said it is something he and his dad have done the last few years to celebrate the Christmas season, and they just couldn’t get a good enough photo.

Father Schueller is a friend and pastor of the family’s parish, so the Gottos decided to ask for his help this time. Chad Gotto said it was easy to get the cows in the right place. Also, their goal in staging the photograph wasn’t to achieve fame.

“I didn’t even know he posted it,” said Gotto. “We just wanted a picture for the family.”

The image encapsulates a way of life that has been important to the Gottos for generations.

“Our family lives by the three ‘Fs’ — faith, family and farming,” Gotto explained.

Father Schueller couldn’t have predicted the response to the photo when he started flying drones as a hobby about five years ago.

“It was just something different,” he recalled of his first experiences with piloting. “At the time, drones were a newer technology. I started taking pictures in the area, primarily of churches.”

After crashing the devices quite a few times, especially in the early days, he has since improved his skills and developed a nice portfolio.

The hobby has helped him get to know the rural communities he serves. Farmers will sometimes ask him to photograph them at work, so they have images to share with friends and loved ones.

The priest offered encouragement to anyone who might want to take up the hobby. “I think a lot of people are afraid to fly drones because they are afraid to crash,” he said, suggesting that people should take the risk and start with something inexpensive.

In the wake of the popularity of the cattle cross photo, Father Schueller has made it his Facebook profile photo and has posted one of the videos showing how the Gottos got the cows lined up. Commenters on the cattle cross image express a wide range of feelings — everything from reverence to humor.

Father Schueller believes the photo went viral for two reasons.

“I think it is the faith aspect,” he said. “There is a yearning when you see a symbol like that. I also think people like cows.”

Chad Gotto is getting ready to welcome some new calves into his herd. The message he wants to share with those who like the photo is that people can make faith part of their daily lives, even if they are engaged in something as simple as feeding cows.

“I just wanted to tell everyone to involve Christ in everything you do,” he said.

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Russo is editor of The Witness, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

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