December 13, 2013

St. Denis Parish closes, merges into Immaculate Conception Parish

By Natalie Hoefer

Nell Ann Pfeifer, a member of St. Denis Parish in Jennings County since 1966, recalled the last moments of the final Mass at St. Denis Church celebrated on Nov. 23.

“[Parish life coordinator Franciscan] Sister Christine [Ernstes] carried the Easter candle out with the youngest member of the parish—I think he’s maybe 5 years old. They lit a smaller candle from the Easter candle, then they blew out the Easter candle, and the little boy locked the door. It was so sad.”

St. Denis Parish merged with Immaculate Conception Parish in Milhousen as a result of the “Connected in the Spirit” planning process in the Batesville Deanery.

Sister Christine, who also serves as parish life coordinator for Immaculate Conception Parish, admitted that the members of St. Denis Parish “are very, very sad.”

“One of the ladies of the parish said it best,” said Sister Christine. “She said, ‘Our head knows that this is going to happen, but our hearts haven’t caught up to our head.’ ”

Despite the sadness, the merging of the two parishes was made smoother from the cooperation they have shared through the years. According to Sister Christine, Immaculate Conception Parish has long served as the site of faith formation programs for the two parishes, and has been the site of holy day Masses for many years as well.

Members of St. Denis Parish were formally welcomed at a Mass celebrated on Dec. 8 at Immaculate Conception Church, followed by a special breakfast.

Ruth Diekhoff, who became a member of St. Denis Parish in 1966, will join Immaculate Conception Parish.

“One of my children already goes there,” she said. “My other three children will transfer their families there, too. My grandchildren already get their faith formation there.”

Still, the need to join a different parish is difficult for Diekhoff.

“My husband was baptized at St. Denis. All four of our children were baptized there. My daughter was married there. My husband’s funeral was in the church, and he is buried in the cemetery there.”

While funerals and wakes will now be held at Immaculate Conception Church, St. Denis’ cemetery will remain open, which is a consolation to Diekhoff.

Nevertheless, questions still linger for her.

“The hard part is trying to explain to non-Catholic friends why our church is so old but has to close when their churches are newer. I explain that we have a shortage of priests, but that’s hard for them to get, because they change their pastors pretty often.

“What happens when we have an abundance of priests?” Diekhoff asked. “Will we build churches again out in the country? I wonder about that.”

Like Diekhoff, Pfeifer will join Immaculate Conception Parish.

“We like [the parish] and have worked with them for years. We started blending children’s religious education classes when my son, who is 46, was a young child.”

Going back even further, Pfeifer’s grandfather-in-law helped build the current St. Denis Church.

“The first church building we had was a saw mill,” she explained. “They had Mass there while members of the parish, including my husband’s grandfather, helped build the new church.

“Foundation stones were brought out of creeks around here. They made the bricks in the side yard. It was a community project.”

During the closing Mass, the history of the parish was read, starting with its founding in 1894. Pictures of the parish and parts of its history were brought forward in the procession, including a photograph of Father Matthias Gillig, who founded the parish.

“[The closing Mass] really went very well,” said retired Father John Geis, who served as a sacramental minister for the parish and concelebrated the final Mass with the parish’s other sacramental minister, retired Father William Turner. Both priests also serve as part-time sacramental ministers at Immaculate Conception Parish.

“I think that the faith of the people is there,” Father Geis continued. “The people will continue to find Christ in one another in another parish, wherever they go—that’s what we’ve been praying for.”

At the time of its closing, St. Denis Parish consisted of 34 families.

“St. Denis is a farming community,” said Pfeifer. “There’s never been a town—we’re in the middle of nowhere.

“It’s hard to have your children continue to be farmers. They just aren’t staying.

Because of that, she said, the closing of the parish “was inevitable at some point.

“We just didn’t think we’d reached that point yet. We just have to accept it.”
 

(For more information about the merger of St. Denis Parish in Jennings County into Immaculate Conception Parish in Milhousen, including the decrees stating reasons for this change, log on to www.archindy.org/connected.)

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