By JOANNE FOX
Marge Stanek of Sioux City recalled crying during the entire Mass when it was announced some 20 years ago St. Francis Church of Sioux City would be closed.
“It was heartbreaking, very traumatic and very difficult,” she said. “All I could think of, ‘They can’t do this to my church.’”
It’s a sentiment shared by other parishioners some two decades later as the Diocese of Sioux City begins its pastoral planning process – Ministry 2025 – which will result in the change to oratory status for 40 of the 108 diocesan parishes.
Stanek, 83, was also impacted by the simultaneous closing of St. Casimir Parish, within walking distance of her home.
“I thought it was an ethnic thing,” she said. “St. Francis was a Polish parish and St. Casimir was a Lithuanian parish. The two congregations had a bond. My family was comfortable attending both parishes for Mass and confession.”
Stanek’s husband, Joseph, grew up in the parish. Not too long after their marriage in 1953, the Staneks made St. Francis their home parish, where they raised their nine children. Marge participated in many meetings held prior to the 1998 closings.
“It helped to be part of the process,” she said. “But so many were angry. After the announcement, some of the parishioners decided never to go to church.”
That was not the case for Stanek, a Cathedral of the Epiphany parishioner.
“It was a big adjustment and hard to take at first,” she said of the closing of the parishes. “But I realized my faith was not tied to the church building. Our Lord is everywhere and I was not going to lose my faith over the decision.”
Joleen Klocke, a native of Willey, has a long history associated with St. Mary’s Parish. Her paternal great-grandfather, Gerhard Venteicher, was instrumental in the church building in the early 1900s. His name is on several Stations of the Cross.
Klocke and her seven siblings attended the parish grade school and Carroll Kuemper High School, where she graduated in 1962, as did her husband, Raymond, the same year. The couple married in 1969 at the church and raised two children. The Klockes spent almost four decades away from Carroll County, due in part to Ray’s job. After he died in 2000, Joleen relocated to Carroll and attends Mass at Willey.
“Father (Brent) Lingle in The Globe story talked about how we need to have vibrant parishes,” she said. “St. Mary’s is full of young people who participate in parish life. They are sending their children to religious education. They are singing in the choir.”
Klocke expressed her frustration at the February announcement of the initial Ministry 2025 plan, with eight Carroll County parishes scheduled for oratory status.
“I wish Bishop Walker Nickless himself would have come to the church and spoke to the people,” she said. “Have a dialogue with us. Hear our concerns.”
Klocke acknowledged the priest shortage was an issue and offered a suggestion.
“One strategy could be a satellite Mass beamed into our church,” she said. “Hosts could be consecrated ahead of time and a deacon or Eucharistic minister could distribute Communion.”
Klocke confessed she is unsure what she will do if the church is closed.
“Sure, I could go to the Carroll churches, but they are so large, you can’t see anything but the backs of lots of people,” the 73-year-old said, with sadness in her voice. “St. Mary’s is just warmer.”
Klocke shared that many refer to St. Mary’s as “a little bit of heaven.”
“Out of this community came one bishop (Frank H. Greteman), 18 priests and 40 sisters – two of which were my own siblings,” she said. “Nobody can measure up to what Willey has going on.”
Doug Elgersma is not Catholic, but in his role as president of the Sanborn Chamber of Commerce, he is concerned about the closing of St. Cecilia Church, Sanborn.
“As a chamber, our mission is to represent and enhance the business, professional and community interests that drive economic and civic well-being,” he said. “That’s why we are concerned, for several reasons, the negative effect that losing a church has on a community – our community.”
Elgersma explained the loss of the church coincides with a loss of “spirit” in the community.
“There is not only that loss of spirit, but a community loses a fellowship of people and separates a family of parishioners, as they now have to travel to different parishes,” he said. “Or, they don’t go to church at all.”
Quality of life is a large part of why some individuals will embrace a community and worship spaces tend to be at the top of a list, Elgersma pointed out.
“When families look at moving to a town, they look at schools and they look at churches,” he said. “When a family is considering Sanborn and they are Catholic, but there is no Catholic church, will they still move here or move to the town 20 miles away that has a Catholic church?”
That choice will impact the ability of a community to thrive, Elgersma pointed out.
“When we lose residents, we lose the opportunity, not only economically for our local businesses, but we lose a workforce for our businesses, children for our school and taxes for our town,” he said.
Elgersma, who comes out of a Christian Reformed background, has resided in Sanborn for almost six decades and characterized the O’Brien County town as “a community with strong Christian beliefs.”
“We take pride in our eight different churches and would be at a loss if St. Cecilia closed, should the recommendation of Ministry 2025 go forward as planned,” he said.
Alise Allan chose to marry her husband Mark and have their children baptized at St. Joseph Church, Ellendale, despite being a member of an out-of-state parish at the time of each milestone.
“There is only one parish I choose to call home,” she said. “For us, a sense of community was key. We found that at Ellendale.”
A parish placed on oratory status, such as St. Joseph is slated to be, will become a splintered, fractured parish, Allan noted, with individuals moving to different churches, joining other denominations or abandoning religious services.
“Placing our church on oratory status would also be a loss for the future,” she said. “For more than 150 years, the Ellendale church community has stood strong. It will do so for another 150 years, if it is allowed to remain active.”
Allan acknowledged there is a lack of available diocesan priests to celebrate Mass and stressed parishioners are extremely grateful for the priests who preside at Mass and meet the parishioners’ needs.
“The priests who share their time and God-given talents with our families make our church community whole,” she said. “Their years of experience and wisdom help make us stronger every day of the week, not just on Sunday.”
Allan characterized the parish as “flourishing, full of energy and with unified members.”
“You will find more than three-fourths of the parishioners volunteer in some capacity,” she said. “The church is self-sustained, in that member-volunteers collectively take care of the building upkeep and maintenance, church and cemetery grounds-keeping, accounting needs, diocesan reports and religious education classes.”
And, then, there are the apple pies, Allan pointed out.
Ellendale’s Famous Apple Pies is now in its 27th year. Every fall, parishioners make apple pies for their annual fundraiser. Over the years, more than 26,000 pies have been made, frozen and sold.
Allan felt smaller churches hold a key role in the future. Records for 2016 indicate 84 registered families at St. Joseph. Almost 30 percent of the parishioners are under age 30.
“One size does not fit all,” she said. “It is good for dioceses to have large parishes, as well as small- to mid-sized parishes. Differences among our parishes means we are more appealing – to more people.”