Parnell parishioners bid farewell to St. Joseph’s

People gather outside St. Joseph Church in Parnell following the closing Mass June 28.

By Celine Klosterman

PARNELL — Early in his homily for the closing Mass at St. Joseph Parish, retired Bishop William Franklin urged some 250 Catholics to turn and smile at fellow mourners nearby. They took his advice.

“See? It’s a sad moment, but it’s not a terrible moment.” There’s so much to give thanks for; let’s not dwell on what we’ve lost, the bishop said.

He was bidding farewell June 28 to his own home parish. In recent years, that community had a declining membership and a church that needed costly repairs, but the bishop highlighted the spiritual gifts St. Joseph had offered for 120 years. 

“Think of how often God has used St. Joseph’s to bring you closer to him.” You’ve received Communion at the parish, and guidance from parents, priests, Sisters and catechists who helped you come to the “beautiful” knowledge of God, the bishop told Catholics.


“… Life is full of changes. This is a change.” But the parish closure doesn’t mean God has abandoned us — unless we abandon him, the bishop said.

“It’s not just a building. It’s a community.”

You must continue spreading the love and knowledge received from that community, he told Catholics. May God continue to bless you, and may you continue to give thanks for his blessings, Bishop Franklin prayed.

Later, Father Patrick Lumsden, pastor of St. Joseph’s, went to the ambo, Stations of the Cross, altar and other church locations to offer a prayer of remembrance of their roles in the parish’s life.

“It is always so difficult to deal with the death of something or someone we love,” acknowledged Father Michael Weldon, a Franciscan priest who was baptized at St. Joseph, in remarks after Communion.

But he offered a little humor, joking: “I remember when I heard that St. Joseph’s was going to close, I thought, ‘What about my baptism? Is it null and void? Has someone bought the franchise and now they own the mortgage?’”

More seriously, Fr. Weldon touched on the parish’s history, noting its founders were members of St. Michael Parish in Holbrook who pleaded to their bishop that they needed a church closer to the railroad. Father James Davis filled a void before the Parnell church was built in 1889, celebrating Mass at the town’s Hatter Hall.

A founding parishioner, Edward Carroll, later helped bring Sisters of Humility to teach local Catholic students. After a public school opened in 1916, the Sisters taught there, too, according to information in St. Joseph’s history booklet.

Today, the Catholic landscape in Iowa County is changing again, Fr. Weldon noted. So is the Catholic Church’s way of ministering throughout the United States, as parishes merge, close or cluster and lay members take on more responsibility. “But the church is not dying.” It’s still the largest Christian denomination in the country, he said.

“We don’t close a church,” he continued. Priests still serve every region and Catholic. “We just reshape the boundaries so we can do church better.”

Hold onto your connections to each other, Fr. Weldon urged St. Joseph parishioners, as they brushed away tears. But “give yourself to the new shape of the church in Iowa County.” Make it vibrant for your descendants, he said.

Bill McDonald, cantor for 30 years at St. Joseph’s, acknowledged sacrifices the parish’s founders had made. He voiced regret that he couldn’t continue at St. Joseph’s the work they began — though he plans to contribute at his future church.

Nearby parishes include St. Joseph’s in North English, St. Peter’s in Cosgrove and St. Mary’s in Williamsburg — where the Parnell parish’s sacramental records will go.

“It’s sad; there’s people here you see only on Sunday morning, and now we’ll all go in different directions,” he told The Catholic Messenger shortly before a woman greeted him with a farewell hug.

“There’s so many memories here,” she told him. “My kids were baptized here.”

“This is a Good Friday for us,” said Dorothy Donahue, St. Joseph’s organist for 65 years and mother of seven children baptized in the parish. “It’s now up to us to make it the resurrection.”

Words handwritten on a chalkboard in a seating area to the side of the sanctuary put the parish’s life in another perspective: “God put people & places in our path. Thank you for placing this place & community in my family’s path.”

Official Decree Regarding St. Joseph Parish, Parnell, Iowa

The roots of St. Joseph Parish, Parnell are with the Irish immigrants who settled in the Old Man’s Creek area of western Johnson County and southern Iowa County. In the first years they worshiped at St. Michael Parish, Holbrook. In time Catholics who lived further west, citing the difficulties of horse and buggy travel, began to ask for a parish of their own. In November 1888 when Bishop Henry Cosgrove was in Holbrook for confirmation, Edward Carroll of the Parnell area approached the bishop to ask him to form the new parish. The bishop asked Fr. James Davis, the Holbrook pastor to offer Mass in Hatter Hall in Parnell. Within a year a church was built in Parnell.

In the first ten years of the parish the pastors of Holbrook and Williamsburg served Parnell. The first church was built in 1889 for a cost of $1,198, and it was rebuilt in 1893. In 1898 a red brick school building was erected, and in 1902 the Sisters of Humility began a long tenure as teachers in the school. In 1916 the parish school became the local public school with the Sisters of Humility as the faculty, one of the few public schools in Iowa to use Roman Catholic sisters as teachers.

In 1899 the Reverend James Mahoney became the first resident pastor of St. Joseph Parish, Parnell. Fr. Mahoney built a convent for the sisters, eliminated the debt and set the parish on a solid foundation for his successors.

Through the decades the people of St. Joseph’s continued to gather in the white-framed church building. In 1981 the building received a major renovation during the pastorate of Fr. L. Michael Colonnese. In its last years the parish returned to its roots and was served by priests from Holbrook, Williamsburg and North English.

Now, various circumstances, including resources and necessary pastoral planning in the entire Diocese, indicate that previous arrangements can no longer be maintained. New dispositions must be taken in the faithful journey of the people of St. Joseph’s as we strive to provide for the spiritual welfare and salvation of all. Having reached this point in time, it is the recommendation of the pastor and members of the Parish Pastoral Council to close St. Joseph Parish, Parnell. In addition, on November 13, 2008, I sought the advice of the Presbyteral Council of the Diocese of Davenport in accord with canon 515 §2 of the Code of Canon Law. As a result of this consultation, I, the undersigned Bishop of the Diocese of Davenport, do hereby decree that the Parish of St. Jospeh in Parnell is herewith suppressed and its status as a juridic person in canon law is hereby terminated. This closing shall be effective June 30, 2009.

I further decree that the parishioners of St. Joseph’s are now free to become members of neighboring parishes.

All registers containing records of baptism, confirmation, marriage and burials hitherto preserved by St. Joseph Parish are to be conveyed to St. Mary Parish, Williamsburg, where they are to be faithfully preserved according to canon 535 §§1-5. The financial assets of St. Joseph Parish will follow parishioners to their new parishes according to the appropriate percentages.

Furthermore, acting upon the request of the parishioners of St. Joseph Parish and having heard the Presbyteral Council, I hereby relegate the church building of St. Joseph Parish, Parnell, to profane use in accord with canons 1220 and 1222, effective June 29, 2009.

Promulgation of this Decree is to be made in a public fashion as determined by the pastor and lay directors of St. Joseph Parish. It shall also be published in The Catholic Messenger, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Davenport.

Given at Davenport, Iowa, on this 26th day of May, 2009.

Martin Amos,  Bishop of Davenport 

Father George McDaniel, Chancellor

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