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To view a photo slide show of the closing Mass, go to this link.
Before last Sunday’s Mass, the church had stood vacant since June 23, 2007, when the parish celebrated its final Mass. In the intervening years just three religious observances have taken place at the church: one baptism, one wedding and one funeral.
An estimated 300 people turned out for the Mass, which was followed by a parish picnic. Joining Bishop Ricken at the altar were Fr. Dennis Drury, pastor of St. Isidore the Farmer Parish, and Norbertine Fr. Gerald Kempen, a former pastor of St. Joseph Parish.
In his homily, Bishop Ricken acknowledged that it was a difficult time for former St. Joseph parishioners.
“It is a time of mourning, especially for all of you who have so many beautiful memories and moments that you recall,” he said. “I want you to know that my heart and mind are with you, my prayers are with you because it is a difficult time.”
He told them to keep three things in mind.
First, that the church is not a building, but people, said Bishop Ricken.
“For over 150 years, people have come out of their … homes to come together as a church, to gather in this place, to give God worship and praise and thanksgiving,” he said. “The people of God, that is the bishops, the pope, the hierarchy, the religious and all of the lay faithful, we are the church.”
Bishop Ricken explained that since the church would no longer be considered a place of worship, a ceremony would take place to reduce it from a “sacred to the secular” site.
“When this place was dedicated, the walls were blessed, the altar was blessed … everything was blessed and we call that the consecration of the church building,” he said. “So after today’s Mass … the consecrated blessing has to be removed from this place. That is called ‘reduced to profane state.’ So from the sacred to the secular, to the holy to the profane, this building will be reduced and the blessing will be removed because it will no longer be used as a sacred space.”
He explained that the church has an official rite to remove the blessing and Fr. Drury would perform the rite “within the next few weeks.”
While the service had the feel of a funeral, said Bishop Ricken, it is important to remember that just as when people gather at church for a funeral Mass, their faith tells them there is new life after death.
“Because we know that the risen power of Christ is real, death does not have the final word,” he said. “We know the church will go on way beyond any of us. We recognize that this is perhaps a time to say goodbye on one hand and yet to say hello to a new beginning and an opportunity for a new evangelization.”
The closing of St. Joseph Church meant that people would have to travel farther for Mass, Bishop Ricken acknowledged. But in places like Wyoming, where he previously served as bishop, people often travel 40 to 50 miles to attend Mass. “And some of our pastors in Wyoming had to travel 250 miles every weekend, doing two Masses on Saturday evening and three Masses on Sunday morning. … So while in saying that yes it’s a great loss, it’s important to realize that there are churches very close to you and that you can become a member of a larger parish, St. Isidore.”
In closing, Bishop Ricken told the congregation that increased vocations to the priesthood would help the Diocese of Green Bay staff its parishes with resident pastors. “The priest shortage was not the only reason that this parish is being closed. There were other factors,” he said.
He asked parishioners to pray for vocations and to encourage young adults to consider the priesthood or religious life.
Bishop Ricken said that next fall 26 men will be studying for the diocesan priesthood. “Our goal is to get to 40 by the year 2012 and that means we are going to need your prayers,” he said.
“Vocations don’t grow on trees. They come from families like yours,” he said. “So be on the lookout for young men and young women who might have a call to the religious life.”
Among the longtime members of St. Joseph Parish who were on hand for the closing Mass were Jeanie Hlinak, whose family has been part of the parish for five generations.
Hlinak, who serves on the St. Isidore parish council, said it was good for the parish “to have closure to everything.”
“We’ve been going through this process for several years,” she said. “It’s not something that just popped up. The people of Norman knew this was coming eventually. I think that (the closing Mass) makes it a little easier. It’s never easy, but it’s easier.”