By Barb Arland-Fye
LOST NATION — Outside Sacred Heart Church on a foggy Sunday morning, men are dipping batter-coated bread into fryers to make the parish’s famous French toast. Inside the church hall, parishioners are cooking eggs and sausages, filling fruit cups, washing dishes or pouring coffee for the diners at the parish’s annual fundraising brunch.
Any minute they’re expecting Father Greg Steckel, administrator at Sacred Heart parishes in Lost Nation and Oxford Junction and at St. James Parish in Toronto, where he said Mass earlier in the morning.
The Lost Nation parish with 43 families and the Toronto parish with 51 families are in Clinton County in the Davenport Diocese; the Oxford Junction parish with about 90 families is in Jones County in the Archdiocese of Dubuque.
Three parishes, two counties, two dioceses: this collaborative arrangement is probably one of the more unusual partnerships for the Diocese of Davenport. But the parishioners are determined to make it work. In these tight-knit communities — about seven miles apart from each other — preserving parishes is a collaborative effort.
They share a bookkeeper, a housekeeper and a priest. They have separate pastoral councils, but come together several times a year for a tri-parish council meeting “to highlight accomplishments and to reinforce ‘How can we help each other?’” Fr. Steckel said. “It’s that kind of cooperation.”
Each parish has its own finance council, as required by canon law, and maintains separate checking accounts. “It makes everybody feel like they have their own church,” says Jim Schroeder, pastoral council president of the Lost Nation parish and the town’s mayor.
“We divide everything in three — the priest salary, the house, the heating bills, the phone bill, the furnace, the LP.”
Chris Burmeister, a member of the Lost Nation parish who lives in Oxford Junction, serves as the three parishes’ bookkeeper. Juggling multiple checking accounts for joint parish operations is challenging, Fr. Steckel says.
The parishes organize an annual picnic, with each one taking turns preparing the main meal. They patronize each other’s fundraising events; the Toronto parish has a monthly breakfast at the fire station during the school year, Oxford Junction has a fall festival that features a chicken dinner and kolaches, and Lost Nation has its brunch.
“There’s an element of ‘We’ll attend whatever is going on in the other parishes.’ It’s sort of a voluntary movement on the people’s part,” said Bill Van Waes, pastoral council president at St. James in Toronto. People attend Mass in another’s parish when they’re not able to make it to their own, he said. But what makes collaboration click “is the priest, by pulling the three parishes together,” Van Waes said. “He’s the one that pulls all of the strings when it comes to Masses and events that come into play.”
Collaboration can be a painstaking process that requires letting go of some cherished traditions. Beginning this fall, after much discussion, the Lost Nation and Oxford Junction parishes will jointly offer faith formation classes in Oxford Junction on Sunday mornings. That was a major decision because it required a change in Mass schedules. Faith formation classes previously were held at 7 p.m. on Wednesday nights in Oxford Junction, a time that didn’t work for many families. “The religious education board stepped out in faith and said, ‘We need to go to Sundays.’ With some families not being able to participate on Wednesdays, I think Sunday is going to work great,” Fr. Steckel said. “The writing is on the wall — we need to find new ways of cooperating.”
All together, about 75 children are involved in faith formation at the two parishes; Oxford Junction has the better facilities to accommodate that number of students, he added. The Toronto parish, meanwhile, continues its own faith formation program. Volunteers keep it going for the present time, Fr. Steckel said.
Communication is essential to collaboration, and e-mail access has been especially helpful in that respect. “We had to change the date of first Communion and the (suggested) date was put out by e-mail,” Fr. Steckel said. The final decision was made via e-mail.
People’s shopping habits, school district alignments and other outside factors need to be considered in collaboration efforts, Fr. Steckel added. People think nothing of going to Maquoketa for groceries — about a 16-mile drive from Lost Nation — but want to be closer to their churches,” he said. So he celebrates 5 p.m. Mass on Saturdays in Lost Nation, 8 a.m. Sunday in Toronto (because the church there doesn’t have air conditioning) and 10 a.m. Sunday in Oxford Junction.
Preparing for the future
On a typical Sunday, each church sees about 50 Mass-goers, though seating in each church could accommodate many more. “Would any of us survive by ourselves? No, but together with cooperation we’re able to keep it going,” said Fr. Steckel, who’s trying to prepare his congregations for a future with even fewer priests. Today seven priests serve parishes in 11 communities throughout Clinton County. “We may have four priests for all of Clinton County in 10 years … what if one priest has to cover seven churches? I see that as a real possibility,” Fr. Steckel said. In the future, “we’re going to have to have a Sunday night Mass and switch buildings and have congregations going to different sites.”
“I think we’re all starting to understand why, with a shortage of priests, we (parishioners) have to start doing more,” Schroeder said. Equally important, “we need to try to get more people to get back to the church.” One pro-active measure the Catholic, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches in Lost Nation are taking is to start a “Welcome Wagon” program for newcomers.
Marguerite Coon, 82, a lifelong member of the Oxford Junction parish, says her parish and the Lost Nation and Toronto parishes get along fine. They’ve experienced a few bumps in collaboration, which can be overcome. “Community wise, it’s important for the parish to have its own identity. We can each keep our own churches, and for the older people I think that’s quite an asset.”
Could the parishes survive without collaboration? “I think we like our three parishes. As long as Father can put up with all of us — he’s very congenial and works it out the best he can. You’re always going to step on somebody’s toes,”she said.
People have deep roots in their parishes. “They’ve been here 50, 60, 70, 80 years easily on this soil,” Fr. Steckel said. “There’s a sense of place that is beyond what a monk or nun has in the sense of their motherhouse or monastery.”
Schroeder hopes that parishioners in the Lost Nation, Oxford Junction and Toronto cluster will attend meetings beginning this fall that the Davenport Diocese is organizing in planning for the diocese’s future. “They need our input,” Schroeder said.
Clinton Deanery collaboration examples
Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace Parish in Clinton is described as a pioneer in an extensive collaborative process. Prince of Peace was the first in the Diocese of Davenport to build a new church in a parish formed from five parishes, said Father Tony Herold, who served as pastor during the building process. July 1 is the 20th anniversary of Prince of Peace Parish, noted Fr. Herold, who today becomes pastor of Ss. John & Paul Parish in Burlington. Other examples of collaboration in the Clinton Deanery:
• Ss. Philip & James Parish in Grand Mound, St. Patrick Parish in Delmar, and St. Anne Parish in Welton share a pastor, Father David Brownfield. The parishes also share a faith formation coordinator and Deacon Mike Sheil.
• Assumption & St. Patrick Parish in Charlotte, Immaculate Conception Parish in Peterville and Ss. Mary & Joseph Parish in Sugar Creek share a pastor, Father Scott Lemaster. “With these little farm parishes we share everything. I’ve been a country pastor for 20 years. That’s all I’ve ever known is collaboration.” One example: Because of challenges with night vision in rainy or snowy weather, Fr. Lemaster at times needs someone to drive him to church or other appointments. Parishioners pitch in to provide transportation.
• St. Joseph Parish in DeWitt hosts Christian Experience Weekends (CEW), which are open to all of the surrounding parishes, said Father Paul Connolly, St. Joseph’s pastor. Priests in the deanery help each other out with communal penance and other services. Fr. Connolly especially appreciates the help he’s received from Fr. Brownfield. He presided at Mass for Fr. Connolly during a pre-confirmation retreat for St. Joseph eighth-graders because Fr. Connolly had a funeral Mass. And Fr. Brownfield will conclude First Friday Eucharistic adoration with benediction for Fr. Connolly so that he can be in Dallas, Texas, where his 8-year-old nephew will undergo open-heart surgery. “All nine of us rural parishes (in the Clinton Deanery) share in rotating daily Masses,” Fr. Brownfield said. We also back up each other for funerals and sick calls.”
• Prince of Peace provides a priest to preside at Mass each Sunday at the Canticle, home of the Clinton Franciscans, Fr. Herold noted.
Among the challenges to collaboration: multiple school districts, long-distance traveling to priest deanery meetings, and factoring in funeral and wedding Masses with weekend Mass schedule demands.
“Outside factors need to be considered in collaboration,” Fr. Brownfield said during a meeting of Clinton Deanery priests earlier this year. Fr. Lemaster, at the same meeting, said an increase in Hispanic ministry also needs to be considered. Ongoing planning is the key to continuing collaboration as the diocese begins meetings this fall to prepare for the future, the priests said. Grassroots participation is essential, Fr. Herold said. “The bishop would like to listen to the wisdom that’s out in the parishes.”