Parish hall serves as town hub: Lay leader fosters collaboration


(Editor’s note: Catholics looking for ways to put faith into practice during Lent and beyond can get inspiration from others around the diocese working to make the world a better place in which to live. Each week during Lent we’ll profile projects, people and activities striving to make a difference.)

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

RICHLAND — Conversation fills Mother Cabrini Hall, a modest-sized building where 30 or so people are brainstorming on a Thursday night about quality of life issues in their rural Keokuk County town. Mother Cabrini belongs to Ss. Joseph & Cabrini Parish but it also serves as a community center for the 573 residents of Richland.

Barb Arland-Fye
This is one of several small groups participating in a brainstorming session at Ss. Joseph & Cabrini’s Mother Cabrini Hall in Richland. The groups discussed ideas for enhancing the quality of life in Richland, a small rural community in Keokuk County.

“We have anniversary celebrations and weddings, graduations and family gatherings. We have Church Women United meet here once a year. We have a blood drive and we have sales – household sales and farm sales,” says Parish Life Coordinator Shirley Van Dee. The Lions Club and Community Club, of which Van Dee is an active member, meet regularly at Mother Cabrini Hall.


The hall is attached to St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church, but Sunday Mass is celebrated in Ss. Joseph & Cabrini’s other church building, St. Joseph in East Pleasant Plain. The parish does not have a resident priest. Father Robert Striegel juggles ministry as priest moderator and sacramental minister with chaplain duties in Iowa City. He presides at Sunday morning Mass at 8:30 a.m. in East Pleasant Plain. Van Dee leads two prayer services during the week — Tuesdays at 8 a.m. in Richland and Thursdays at 8 a.m. in East Pleasant Plain. She also does all the preparation for baptisms, weddings and funerals.

More funerals are held than weddings. While the parish has about 150 families, “we’ve had 42 people pass away” in the last five years. “We have a lot of 90-year-olds in this parish,” Van Dee says. I’m going to stay here; they seem to live longer here!”

Mother Cabrini Hall “wouldn’t get nearly the use, the life it is getting now” without the civic groups that hold events there, observes retired Richland veterinarian Dr. Gene Hoy.
During the community brainstorming session, some participants resurrect talk about converting an old, unused school building into a community center, but rehab costs send the idea to the backburner. That’s just fine with Colleen Kimble, treasurer of the Community Club.

“Why would we build a community center when we have this available?” Kimble tells a reporter later on. We have big breakfasts and pork chop suppers there. We had our Christmas party for the kids. Summertime there’s a quilt show.” They’re willing to allow us to use that parish hall as a community center at this time and we’re grateful for that,” adds Kimble, who is Methodist.

“It’s definitely the best we have in the community right now,” says Sam Ritchie, president of Richland Lions Club. There’s not another building of adequate size to serve a meal or have larger meetings. Some Lions Club members belong to the parish and that’s how Mother Cabrini Hall came to serve as the club’s home. A banner on one of the walls reads “Welcome Lions.” Another wall on the same side of the hall serves as a display of Lions’ plaques and other memorabilia. Opposite that wall is one featuring a photograph of Pope Francis and a painting of Mary and baby Jesus.

“I’m not a member of the Catholic Church, but I feel very comfortable with them; we all do,” Ritchie says, referring to Richland citizens overall. He and others give generous credit to Van Dee.

“She just has unbelievable amount of energy and unbelievable enthusiasm for the community,” Ritchie says.

Kimble agrees. “She’s not only very good with the church and with the parishioners … she’s very active in the Lions and the Community Club and she’s just an all-around great gal. I would hate to see this church lose her. I think she does a great job for a person who is not a priest.”

“She’s a presence here,” says Doc Hoy, who enlisted Van Dee to serve on an ecumenical outreach committee of the Methodist church where he is a member. “All the people know her and that she’s outgoing and does good things.”

Mayor Tom Hoekstra says Van Dee “does a wonderful job of being active in the community beyond the church.” And he’s encouraged to see so many groups utilizing Mother Cabrini Hall as a community center. It’s important to put the town’s buildings to good use, the mayor believes.

“The square used to be full of businesses,” but not so much anymore, Ritchie says. Still Richland boasts two banks, two restaurants (one is being rebuilt after a fire), a trucking firm, library, a medical clinic and a dental clinic with a full-time dentist.

Getting young people involved is Richland’s greatest challenge, largely because people have jobs in bigger cities such as Fairfield, Washington and Iowa City. “They have so many ties so far away from the town itself. It used to be that the ties were closer to town,” adds Ritchie, a 50-year Richland resident who served 33 years as school principal in nearby Pekin.

Richland’s citizens “do come together at meetings and work together. We have soup suppers and go to each other’s churches for their soup suppers,” observes Van Dee, who in addition to her civic and parish responsibilities also participates in REACH Ministerial Association.

Being involved in ecumenical and civic organizations, “I think has made a big difference in the way people think of the Catholic Church,” says Van Dee, who also makes time for coffee at Loriann’s restaurant on Monday and Friday mornings.

“There’s something about that 8 o’clock gathering. If someone’s not there, we think, ‘Where are they? Are they sick?’ We know if someone goes to the hospital or if someone is sick or needing help.” Two Richland residents require regular trips to Fairfield for dialysis treatment, a 16-mile drive away. Volunteers sign up at Loriann’s to drive the residents to and from their treatments, Van Dee says. “It’s Catholics and all the different denominations that help out with that.”

Collaborating for families in need

Pekin Ministerial Association, of which Shirley Van Dee is a member, provides school supplies and kids’ outfits each academic year to students in need in the Pekin School District which encompasses Richland and other nearby towns. “We supply about 70 kids with an outfit and school supplies — $6,000 to $7,000,” Van Dee says. “At Christmas Time we do the very same thing, except we buy them a toy and also buy for the parents, too. We give them grocery supplies.”

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