By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
Thirteen years ago, in response to a priest shortage, Bishop Emeritus Martin Amos appointed Shirley Van Dee to the position of Parish Life Coordinator for parishes in East Pleasant Plain and Richland. Though she was qualified, Van Dee wondered how parishioners would react to the idea of a woman handling day-to-day operations. She imagined them thinking, “What’s the church coming to? They’ve got a woman running things!”
Fortunately, those fears were unfounded. “They really accepted it,” she recalled. Parish Life Coordinators (PLCs) handle administrative responsibilities of a parish in the absence of a resident priest. While PLCs are not responsible for pastoral care — a priest provides sacramental ministry to the parish — a PLC may preach at reconciliation or funeral services, a celebration of the Word or in other official situations as church representatives when a priest is not available. Van Dee was among the first PLCs in the Diocese of Davenport.
Van Dee, 85, retired from her position on Jan. 1 to spend more time with family and to relax. Though she has enjoyed keeping busy, “I’d like to have a few years of just not doing anything!”
Prior to her PLC appointment, Van Dee served as a pastoral associate at St. Joseph Parish in North English and helped with the diocesan Ministry Formation Program. Her job as PLC in East Pleasant Plain and Richland got off to an intense start in 2008; within a few months of her appointment, the two parishes merged to form Ss. Joseph & Cabrini Parish. It is a smaller, older parish, she said. “When I came, there were 165 families. We’ve had about 100 funerals since I’ve been there, and now we are down to 110 families.”
The parish remains vibrant and generous, she said. It has always met its goal for the Annual Diocesan Appeal and has avoided accruing debt. This year, in the absence of the annual bazaar, parishioners donated $26,000 — the amount they usually raised at the bazaar. “It was amazing, and that’s just the way the parish is.”
Although the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the parish from hosting its annual Christmas Eve party this year, the parties were among Van Dee’s most treasured memories. “I’ll miss all the gatherings we had together,” she said, noting that she recently moved to Williamsburg to be closer to family.
Rosemary Pacha, a long-time member of Ss. Joseph & Cabrini Parish, said Van Dee “truly fulfilled her duties as Parish Life Coordinator. Over her 13 years, she became a true friend and member of our parish families. She was so kind and caring. She knew and would visit and take Communion to parish members who were in care centers, alone or in hospitals. At Christmas time, she would go with us to deliver little Christmas gifts to everyone and spend some time to visit and to pray with them.”
“People were so appreciative of her, whether it be a wedding, a funeral, a baptism or a family gathering. She was there to help. She was so organized, thoughtful, and planned such beautiful church services. Shirley welcomed out-of-town guests and family members and made them feel at home in our parish. She was a friend to anyone she met in the community, as well as at church.”
Van Dee knows of no current plans for a PLC for the parish; her previous responsibilities have been split among parishioners, and she has been assisting them with the transition. Father Damian Ilokaba, chaplain at Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Iowa City, continues to serve as the parish’s sacramental minister. In honor of Van Dee’s retirement, parishioners surprised her with a card shower. The heartfelt messages were “overwhelming,” she said. While she plans to come back and visit, “I will miss my friends.”
Pacha said the feeling is mutual. “Over the years, we all learned to love and cherish her as our parish leader. We will miss her, but she will always be remembered as a true friend of God and of his people here at Ss. Joseph & Cabrini Parish. We wish her well in retirement. God bless her.”