By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
WELTON — As longtime parishioner Pat Frey entered St. Anne Church before the final Mass on July 26, she saw Father Paul Connolly standing in the aisle before her. Seeing the tears forming in her eyes, the pastor stretched his arms to offer her a comforting embrace.
“It’s home and it’s family,” she said. “I feel like we are losing a family.”
The parish celebrated the final Mass about nine months after the parish council decided to close both the parish and the church. The parish faced mounting costs for maintenance on the 104-year-old building whose parishioners are primarily over the age of 60. Parishioner Tom Gannon said that few sacraments had been celebrated in recent years, and though the idea of closing the parish and church was difficult to accept, “the handwriting was on the wall. With no young people, what’s the future of the church? Was it wise to spend the money on repairs?”
Fr. Connolly, pastor of St. Anne in Welton and St. Joseph in DeWitt, said St. Anne wasn’t always so barren. It once flourished in the agricultural community during a time when young families and children were as abundant as the farmland. However, as agriculture changed and fewer people were needed to own and maintain large acreages, people began to search elsewhere for opportunities.
“It’s a very caring community,” Fr. Connolly said. “The only problem is, like Iowa, one of our greatest exports is our people. “
Though the parish had 40 families at the time of its closing, former parishioners came from as far away as California to celebrate the final Mass. By the time the Mass started, attendance was standing-room only.
Carol Ann Roeder, a parishioner of 61 years, said, “It’s so sad, yet we were overjoyed to have the (church) family come home one last time.”
Fr. Connolly said the parish has been fortunate to have time to grieve and come to terms with the church and parish’s closing, since the structural issues did not warrant an immediate closing of the church. Still, sobs of the parishioners were palpable before, during and after the final Mass. He equated the situation to saying goodbye to a dying relative, and offered consoling hugs to tearful parishioners before Mass.
Parishioners Bill and Kathy Goddard chose to channel their grief into the creation of a model of St. Anne Church, which took three months to build and recently won a prize at the Clinton County Fair. It was on display at the final Mass, and will be donated to the DeWitt Historical Society. “It was our way to cope,” Kathy Goddard said.
Bishop Martin Amos presided at the Mass. He said he understood the “sense of sadness and nostalgia” felt by those in the pews, and offered assurances that God would not abandon them in the wake of change. “Will things be different? Yes. Will friendships and traditions continue? I hope so. Will God’s Spirit be with you? Always.”
This fall, the brick church will be torn down, and a memorial will be built in its place. Though Welton will lose one of its landmarks, many of the church’s treasures will find new homes within the diocese, said Kay Temple of the Diocesan Pastoral Council.
Fr. Connolly said the goal moving forward for the families from St. Anne’s is to find new Catholic faith communities in which they can feel comfortable and get involved. Former parishioners have several choices within a 15-mile radius. “The parishes are willing and welcoming,” he said.
For Frey, it’s about staying connected. “I hope we’ll try to stay a family, wherever we go.”