By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
MUSCATINE — Rain and tears were forecast to fall on the afternoon of June 21, as St. Mary Church hosted its final Mass. Yet like the sunshine that ultimately spread over the 137-year-old church that day, the celebration of its history and its people helped to part the clouds of sadness for those in attendance.
“I watched the radar, and as the storm clouds got close to Muscatine, it almost seemed like it split,” said parishioner Tim Peters. “I knew it was the good work of the Lord, to let us celebrate this the way we should. … It’s almost like a celebration of the passing of a good friend. You gather to celebrate life.”
Before the Mass, parishioner Keith Porter kept watch over the church’s vestibule as guests listened to the historic Pfeiffer organ being played upstairs. Guests could peer into the sanctuary, but were not allowed through the doorways due to safety concerns. Porter was a bit surprised at first by the smiling faces as he watched people pass in and out. “You think it’s going to be sad, that it is all about the building, and then you see people reuniting, saying ‘Oh, I haven’t seen you in forever.’ As usual with the (Catholic) Church, it’s really all about people.”
Bishop Martin Amos echoed the sentiment as he presided over the Mass, which took place under a tent on the back parking lot. In regards to the non-traditional location, he told the congregation, “While this building has perhaps been the focus, the gathering point, what is most important is not the building. It is the people.”
Sheila Chaudoin, a parish historian whose great-grandparents helped build the church, told The Catholic Messenger that the whole day was reminiscent of “saying goodbye to an old friend.”
She said the closing of St. Mary Church had long been a possibility. The parishes of St. Mary and St. Mathias merged around the year 2000, and the number of Masses at St. Mary decreased over time.
She said the swiftness of the need to close St. Mary, however, was a surprise. The parish council hired an engineering firm to assess a buckling in the floor last year, and received the assessment the day after celebrating Easter Mass in 2013. The report was much worse than anticipated. Deemed unsafe for public use, St. Mary was forced to close, or face $2.3 million to $3.1 million in repair costs. The parish Strategic Planning for Building and Grounds Committee, with input from the parish and the diocese, decided it was not feasible to repair the church.
“It’s one of those things where you look at the profit and loss statement and try to be positive, but there are times when you just have to shake your head and say there’s no way to save it,” Chaudoin said.
She said the process of demolishing the church will be slow, and most likely will not begin until early fall. Finding a place for the church’s treasures is a priority.
Clergy and parishioners “walked” some of the essential items to St. Mathias in the Corpus Christi procession after Mass, but many items are not yet spoken for. Parishioners are still searching for a new home for the historic Pfeiffer organ. Parishioner Frank Kelly said, “It’s the 500-pound gorilla in the room. We sure want someone to take it, use it, and love it.”
Along with losing a church, St. Mary & Mathias parish will be saying goodbye to Pastor Father Jason Crossen and Parochial Vicar Father Jake Greiner on July 1, as they are being reassigned.
Father Troy Richmond, former parochial vicar and administrator of the Mission of Guadalupe in Muscatine and current pastor of St. James Parish in Washington, will return to Ss. Mary & Mathias as pastor. Fr. Crossen said Fr. Richmond is a “kind, gentle person” who has been attending parish meetings in preparation for the move July 1. Newly ordained Father Bob Cloos will serve as parochial vicar.
Fr. Crossen said he believes Ss. Mary & Mathias parish will flourish in spite of the changes. “We recognize the end of this specific site. We also realize that this is a new beginning. We look at our past, realize our present, and move forward to the future, which is one that’s bright because the community is still very active, very alive, very involved in the community and I think that, too, in a sense will help with the healing of the closing of this site. It’s a very cohesive community.”
The Belles of St. Mary’s
The “Belles of St. Mary’s” consists of a group of 11 women who went through school at St. Mary’s in Muscatine and have enjoyed a lifelong friendship. Named for the Bing Crosby film and song of the same name, the Belles meet once a month for a meal and socialization, as they have done for nearly 60 years.
“For us to be together since 1956, plus going to school together, we have a relationship and a bond that won’t be broken,” said member Coletta Logel.
The women are now in their 80s, most still living in the Muscatine area. Six of the women attended the final Mass and festivities at St. Mary. Member Betty Marten now lives in Syracuse, N.Y., and flew in to share the experience with her good friends. “Our friendship is really deeply imbedded. I always find my way back,” Marten said.
The women have been through marriages, deaths, and now the closing of their church together. Member Marilyn Cooney said, “We always hang together, no matter what happens.”