December 16, 2011

A century of faith comes to an end at St. Leonard of Port Maurice Parish

Parishioners at St. Leonard of Port Maurice Parish in West Terre Haute attended Mass at their church for the last time on Nov. 19. (Archive photo)

Parishioners at St. Leonard of Port Maurice Parish in West Terre Haute attended Mass at their church for the last time on Nov. 19. (Archive photo)

By Mary Ann Garber

A century of sharing faith and fellowship came to an end on Nov. 19 at St. Leonard of Port Maurice Church in West Terre Haute.

Exactly 100 years to the day after St. Leonard parishioners celebrated Mass at their first church in western Vigo County, the Terre Haute Deanery parish at 126 N. Eighth St. was closed by the archdiocese due to declining membership and future parish staffing challenges.

Parishioners from about 35 households are in the process of transferring their memberships to nearby St. Mary-of-the-Woods Parish, the designated receiving community six miles away, or to another Terre Haute area parish of their choice.

“It has been ‘the’ Catholic presence in the West Terre Haute community,” said Providence Sister Joan Slobig, parish life coordinator of St. Leonard and St. Mary-of-the-Woods parishes for seven years.

“The first Mass in the original church was celebrated on Nov. 19, 1911,” she said. “The final liturgy [was] 100 years to the day so that’s rather poignant.”

St. Leonard Parish was closed after a lengthy discernment process as part of the implementation of the Terre Haute Deanery strategic plan.

“The parish actually began as a house church in the home of the Gropp family in 1910,” Sister Joan explained. “The parishioners in the West Terre Haute area immediately began to work toward the building of the church, which was originally on the second floor of the school building. The current church was built in 1959. It took that many years for them to have a

free-standing building for the church.”

In recent years, the weekend Mass was celebrated at 4 p.m. on Saturdays.

“Parishioners have been challenged to make a decision and be registered in a new parish by Ash Wednesday,” Sister Joan said, “so that gives them some time to discern and to check out the other parishes in the deanery and make a decision.”

Vigo County is the poorest county in the state, she said, and West Terre Haute has a large number of impoverished families and individuals.

“I think the thing that is wonderful [about St. Leonard Parish] is that, through the years since 1994, the parish has supported the Providence Food Pantry that is housed in the [former] school building,” Sister Joan said. “The number of families that have been served through the pantry is phenomenal. The parish has made a huge commitment through the years to make sure that the hungry people in the area are fed. That’s something that [the people] hope to be able to continue.”

In a July 13 letter, Archbishop [now emeritus] Daniel M. Buechlein noted that “much prayerful work, research and reflection” by the Terre Haute Deanery Pastoral Leadership Team and Deanery Planning Team went into creating the strategic plan for future parish staffing.

“The decision to close St. Leonard of Port Maurice Parish was agonizing,” the archbishop wrote, and was the result of “many hours [spent] in collection of data and input from the people of the deanery, reviewing resources—current and projected—as well as in prayerful contemplation before making the recommendation for [the] closing of your parish and the three other parishes.”

St. Joseph Parish in Universal, Holy Rosary Parish in Seelyville and St. Ann Parish in Terre Haute will be closed in 2012.

“These closings are necessary to best use the Church’s resources and to achieve vibrant ministries in the Terre Haute Deanery,” the archbishop wrote. “… I thank you for your commitment to serving those most in need. We are going to continue to serve the less fortunate, and we will enhance these services.”

In a Nov. 19 letter to St. Leonard parishioners, Bishop Christopher J. Coyne, apostolic administrator, wrote that “the closing of your parish brings some pain and sorrow, and I thank you for the dignified manner in which you have carried out this difficult task. … We are reminded that our true home is found in God and is not contained by any walls.”

Closing rituals focused on remembering all those who received the sacraments at the church, Sister Joan said. After the final Mass, the Eucharist was transferred to St. Mary-of-the-Woods Church.

“There is a sense of the sacredness of the place and gratitude for the 100 years of ministry that the parish has offered to the Catholic population of West Terre Haute,” she said, “and also a celebration of the giftedness of the people. Their church building is closing, but their membership in the faith community is moving. That doesn’t end.”

She said a wonderful homecoming Mass on Nov. 5 and emotional final liturgy on Nov. 19 gave parishioners time to pay tribute to their faith community.

“It [was] kind of bittersweet,” Sister Joan said, “of sadness and gratitude at the same time for all that the community has meant to the people. The quality of the faith and fidelity of the Catholic presence in the West Terre Haute community are admirable, and the people are very proud of that.”

Father Bernard Head, sacramental minister and priest moderator of St. Leonard and St. Mary-of-the-Woods parishes since 2002, said St. Leonard Parish will live on in its people.

“The closing of the parish means not just a building being shut down,” Father Head said. “It means combining this congregation with another one. Hopefully, that will mean enriching that other congregation by bringing our gifts, our dedication to Christ, our talents, our efforts and our experience to them, and in return sharing their gifts.”

Longtime St. Leonard parishioner Joe Anderson, a Terre Haute attorney who attended the former St. Leonard School, said the parish always had great priests and the Providence sisters that taught at the school were wonderful.

“It was like going to a prep school,” Anderson said. “… It is just wonderful what the Sisters of Providence have done there.”

Throughout the years, Anderson said, “the parish has been good for the whole community.”

Julie Bowers, animator for the Terre Haute Deanery strategic plan, said St. Leonard parishioners are “a wonderful example of a group of very dedicated people walking this path very gracefully.” †

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