No miracle in sight for church facing closure
Tears pool in Karen Birch's eyes.
"We need a miracle," she says. "We need a miracle so badly."
On Wednesday, Birch turned to her refuge in times of tribulation -- her parish.
Miracles can happen here at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Dubuque, she says, and a nearby window showing Jesus walking from the tomb reminds her that hope can prevail. But no colored glass depicts her beloved church rising from the dead.
"I hope it can, and I will pray it does," she says, "because what will I do if it doesn't?"
About 200 parishioners gathered at St. Mary's on Wednesday to hear the announcement that they'd been dreading for days.
"St. Mary's Parish will cease operations," Pastoral Associate Ann Wertz read from the pulpit.
More than 142 years after the facility opened its doors, it will close.
The reasons why are numerous, church officials said. At least 63 percent of the parishioners are older than 70, and the church population dies day by day, although 600 families still are considered members of the church. Fewer young families seek the church. The neighborhood isn't Catholic anymore, and at least 90 percent of the congregation lives outside parish boundaries.
Financial problems plague the parish. St. Mary's projects a $150,000 deficit for the 2009-10 fiscal year, and current debt exceeds $150,000. Additionally, at least $2 million worth of repairs remain.
Officials said there is no time line for the closure.
The announcement came at about 6:30 p.m. Wertz distributed handouts to the ushers, who then walked among the pews. Except for the rustling of the paper, silence dominated the chapel as church members allowed the words to become real.
Church officials made speeches, crying as they told how hard it was to make the decision to shut down the church where they had been baptized and married.
But anger surfaced. Teresa Ruzicka was the first of more than a dozen members to address the congregation, and she marched to the front of the church to interrupt the Rev. Steve Rosonke's address. To much applause, she said she was sick of hearing how older members contributed to the closing.
"I'm getting a little bit tired of being told I'm not viable if I'm not 35 or younger," she said.
Some speakers talked about how the Archdiocese of Dubuque seemed to thwart fundraising efforts in the past -- no archdiocese representative attended the meeting -- and how the organization also prevented the building from being placed on the registry of historic places.
Others said they wanted to know why the church failed to ask the congregation's opinion, to which Wertz explained that the councils and committees were elected to represent the congregation.
"It's not a democracy," she said.
Others thanked the committee members for their decision and agreed that diminishing volunteer numbers and drooping tithes contributed to the problem.
Still, one issue incited the crowd more than any -- the annual $230,000 assessment fee the church pays to the Holy Family Schools to support area Catholic education.
For several speeches, the issue was avoided. Then one speaker said that Holy Family drove the church into debt each year, and the church roared with applause.
One father of four said that the fee was unfair.
"We have been bled and bled and bled and bled, and now we're empty, and I'm sorry to say that bleeding was done by the Holy Family school system," he said. "I have four children, but I am not going to ask you guys to send them to school. That's my responsibility."
Church officials said the fee is determined based on the number of students attending Catholic schools, the number of potential students, the church's annual income and parish debt.
Holy Family Catholic Schools chief administrator Steve Cornelius said that 21 students from St. Mary's are enrolled for Catholic school for this fall thus far. The bill for Catholic education is paid by parish assessments, fundraising and tuition. For the past five years, student tuition has increased 7 percent, although parish subsidies have decreased 8.5 percent since 2005.
One mother said the fee was necessary, adding that the operating budget of St. Mary's own Catholic school, now closed, was $400,000.
"I realize what we are paying now is a lot, but it's less than what it once was," she said. "I would hope my children would have the same right to a Catholic education that you and your children had."
IN NEED OF PRAYER
More than two hours after the meeting started, parishioners began streaming from beneath the steeple that is reportedly the highest in the entire Mississippi River Valley.
Just as they had done Sunday after Sunday, they gathered along the steps. Parishioners talked with one another, families connected with other families. But these conversations were muted, as the church's future and past linger in limbo.
German immigrants constructed the facility in 1867, and the ornate organ was installed a decade later. The stained-glass windows were shipped from Bavaria in 1914, and World War I threatened to stall the delivery.
The Rev. Aloysius Schmitt served the parish before World War II, and he was stationed at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. He was honored for saving several soldiers lives before becoming the first chaplain to die in the war.
These are the stories that will be lost, said parishioner John Nicks. His own grandparents emigrated from Germany, and "when they came to America, they came to St. Mary's," he said.
"This church means everything to us," he said. "All we can do now is pray."
And that they did, uniting together as they recited, "Hail Mary, full of grace ..."