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Le Mars parishes plan for unification

By KATIE LEFEBVRE, Globe staff reporter
(Email Katie)

In a matter of six months, the two shall become one.

Members of the Le Mars Area Catholic Cluster received a letter from their pastors on Feb. 10 and 11 concerning the unification of St. James and St. Joseph parishes in Le Mars into one new parish.

The unification of the two Le Mars parishes is attributed in part to demographics and part of the Diocese of Sioux City’s Long Range Strategic Plan (LRSP).

“I think it’s a natural outcome of the circumstances that we are facing in the diocese – namely a lack of priestly personnel, an aging contingent of priests and the need to consolidate and conserve our resources for parishes and priests,” said Msgr. Mark Duchaine, vicar general and administrator of the parishes in Ellendale, Merrill and Struble.

With the formation of one united parish, Father Kevin Richter, currently pastor at St. Joseph in Le Mars, has been assigned as the pastor and will remain as Gehlen Catholic’s president.

According to Father Richter, the conversation about unification has been in the works between Father Paul Eisele, current pastor at St. James in Le Mars, the bishop and himself for about six months.

“Father Paul was aware that he could not continue to administer the parish (St. James), but he wanted to continue in ministry and likes it here in Le Mars,” said Father Richter. “We started the conversations and Father Paul and I have been doing a lot of visiting.”

Father Richter and Father Eisele visited the pastor in Norfolk, Neb., because the model they are looking at for Le Mars is the model Norfolk has been using since the early 1960s – one parish with two worship sites.

In Father Eisele’s new role, he will serve as parochial vicar (associate pastor) allowing him to focus on sacramental and pastoral ministries in the parish, as well as classroom visits and assisting with the activities at Gehlen Catholic School.

“I am of an age where I still think I can be a priest, but I am getting tired of meetings,” said Father Eisele. “We were trying to dream up a way that we could take care of both those things – allow me to stay in ministry, but not have to do meetings.”

The date given in the letter as to the start of the unification was Sept. 1.

“However, we recognize canonically there are a number of steps that need to take place,” said Father Richter. “All of the issues may not be fully done by then.”

Already shared aspects

The rationale of the newly-unified Le Mars parish is attributed to many aspects of parish life the churches currently share, according to the letter. They include Gehlen Catholic School, RCIA program, adult education opportunities, cluster bulletin, coordination of Mass times to avoid unnecessary duplication, reconciliation services, newly added perpetual adoration, cemetery, Knights of Columbus Council and Catholic Daughters Council.

“I think it is a great thing because, as noted in the letter, we have such a long list of things we do together already, essentially it is one parish already,” said Father Richter. “It simplifies the final piece, which is the finances. We no longer have to try and figure out what percent each (parish) has to pay to Gehlen or to religious education. Now it will be together.”

The letter also points to the deeply interconnected personal relationships, friends, marriages, relationships, neighbors and the deeper sense of community.

The two parishes will have a new name. Each parish will retain its name to specify location for various activities. For example, the newly named parish (St. “X”) “will sponsor adult education during Advent, which will be held at St. James Church on even weekends and St. Joseph on odd weekends.”

Le Mars will maintain two worship sites – one at St. James Church and one at St. Joseph Church. This is the significant and key difference between the original LRSP presented by the Diocese of Sioux City in 2006 and the revised LRSP presented to parishioners Feb. 10 and 11.

“Father Kevin and I will celebrate at both places (parishes),” said Father Eisele. “We will switch off weekends. Hopefully everything will fall into place. I am looking forward to it. I think it is going to be a wonderful asset to the Le Mars Area Cluster.”

Down the line when Father Eisele is no longer in active ministry, he said this would be when the bishop and personnel board could place someone who is newly ordained to get parish experience. It could also be a place where someone like Father Eisele, who is of retirement age but willing to stay on, could live there as well.

Three rural parishes

The letter also addressed the cluster’s three rural parishes – Our Lady of Assumption in Merrill, St. Joseph in Struble and St. Joseph in Ellendale, as part of the LRSP. All three parishes will remain open for the duration of the assignment of Msgr. Duchaine, while he continues to serve as the vicar general of the diocese.

When Msgr. Duchaine is re-assigned or retires, the following actions will occur:

- Assumption - Merrill will be closed.
- St. Joseph - Struble will also be closed. If parishioners choose, the parish could be designated as a Liturgical Site. Therefore, the buildings could be maintained for weddings, funerals, and other occasional masses (for example, Mass one Sunday a month).
- St. Joseph – Ellendale could potentially remain open. The remotely-located parish serves portions of rural Akron, LeMars and Sioux City. Ellendale will remain a part of Gehlen Catholic’s corporation and would most likely become a mission of one of the Sioux City parishes.

“There is no doubt the three small parishes of Merrill, Ellendale and Struble are experiencing the same kind of demographic change that is present throughout rural America – a declining farm population and a growing secularization that diminishes parish numbers,” said Msgr. Duchaine. “We are in a situation where we are no longer able to do on our own what we once were able to do.”

He explained it will be either necessary to cluster and share resources or “in some instances, to simply acknowledge the situation has to be addressed through other means, which probably includes closing the parish, if necessary.”

The Le Mars Area Catholic Cluster previously included the parishes of St. Joseph in Neptune, which closed in 2011, and St. Mary’s in Maurice, which closed in 1995.

Town hall meetings

Parishioners were invited to share their concerns and questions at a series of town hall meetings at each of the parishes. Meetings have already been held at St. James in Le Mars, Our Lady of Assumption in Merrill, St. Joseph in Ellendale and St. Joseph in Struble.

Father Richter noted there were about 90 people at the town hall meeting at St. James on Feb. 12. He said there was a strong feel within the room that “the people mostly understand and are supportive.”

“It was a very informational meeting. I think everything went very well,” he said. “There were lots of questions.”

Father Eisele noted the other meetings were fairly well attended – 75 in Merrill and about 35 in Ellendale. Each meeting lasted an hour and most questions and concerns were addressed.

“I think it is important to give them (parishioners) an opportunity to ask questions and maybe to raise significant points that we priests all together haven’t considered,” said Msgr. Duchaine. “It is both information sharing and information giving on their part.”

A final town hall meeting will be held at noon on Feb. 23 at St. Joseph in Le Mars.

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