Churdan Catholics to lose Columbkille

In surprise move, St. Brigid in Grand Junction converted to oratory status

For two long months, the Rev. Jeff Schleisman carried around the burden of knowing that St. Brigid Catholic Church in Grand Junction will close for good as a worship site in 2018 after 145 years as an active parish.

“I was to remain quiet,” Schleisman said Jan. 13, a day after the diocese of Sioux City released its finalized restructuring plan known as Ministry 2025.

“I wish I wouldn’t have known two months ago,” Schleisman confessed. “Everybody knew I knew.”

It turns out the burden on Schleisman was even heavier than anyone in Greene County could have expected.

The final plan calls for St. Columbkille Catholic Church in Churdan to close as a worship site as well in 2018 — a move not part of the diocese’s draft proposal in February 2016.

“It will come as a big surprise to St. Columbkille,” said Schleisman, who currently pastors at all three Catholic churches in Greene County.

After summer 2018, there will be just one Catholic parish left in Greene County — St. Joseph in Jefferson.

“I was shocked in hearing it,” Schleisman explained, “just as I was shocked a Z ago that St. Brigid was going to oratory status.”

Oratory status is the designation given to a Catholic church that no longer holds regular Mass but can be used for weddings and other special events.

It’s more often than not the next step toward outright closure, as former parishioners struggle to maintain such a large building on their own.

“We tried our best at St. Brigid to try to appeal going to oratory status,” Schleisman said. “A lot of meetings, a lot of effort.

“People were hanging on that hope that it would be reversed.”

Across the diocese, which serves 24 counties, 40 churches spent the past year lobbying to stay open as active worship sites.

The final Ministry 2025 plan — the details of which were first published Jan. 12 in the diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Globe – reveals that 38 churches, including St. Columbkille, will begin moving to oratory status as soon as this summer.

St. Elizabeth Seton in Glidden, tagged initially to go to oratory status, will remain open under the final plan.

What it comes down to is a shortage of priests.

The diocese expects to only have about 31 available priests by 2025.

Schleisman, 52, doesn’t have high hopes that more men will be called to join their ranks.

“It’s culture,” he said. “Nobody wants to preach morality anymore in an immoral world.

“It’s a tough job.”

Schleisman recalls the satisfaction of being a newly ordained priest on 9/11 and seeing churches packed for a few weeks after.

“Then they just drifted away again,” he said.

The final Ministry 2025 plan calls for the creation of 31 church clusters made up of 61 total parishes and 20 worship sites.

St. Joseph in Jefferson will be clustered with Sacred Heart in Boone and St. Malachy in Madrid.

St. John in Ogden will join St. Brigid and St. Columbkille in oratory status.

Duane Towers, of Churdan, a member at St. Columbkille for more than six decades, said losing the church will be akin to losing a school.

“We felt sorry for Junction,” he said, “because they were losing a church and a school both.”

Few at St. Columbkille saw this coming.

Carolyn Towers, Duane’s wife of 63 years and a lifelong member of the parish, not only attended catechism at St. Columbkille as a girl, but grew to eventually teach it there as well.

“It’s such a beautiful church,” Carolyn Towers said. “We’ve kept everything in order.

“I just don’t quite understand why they can’t have Mass here every once in a while.”

The current church building was built in 1930, while the present St. Brigid building in Grand Junction is only 30 years old.

But in that time, rural Iowa has relentlessly lost population.

Just between 2008 and 2015, the number of households in the 24 counties served by the diocese decreased 7.5 percent.

Quentin Minnehan, a Cedar Twp. farmer who serves on the church council at St. Columbkille, said it’s startling to attend Mass in Des Moines or even Carroll, where worship is often punctuated by the sound of crying babies.

“There are no children in these little towns,” Minnehan, 67, said. “There are no young people out here.”

He remembers 15 years ago a priest in another county telling him he buried 13 people one year and only baptized two.

He’s one of the few who could see Ministry 2025 on the horizon.

“It’s a people game,” Minnehan said.

“Most people do not want to accept what’s going on,” he added. “They want to fight this.”

Minnehan grew up at St. Patrick Catholic Church west of Churdan in rural Cedar Township.

“It scares me when people can’t face facts,” he said. “You can’t be a blind optimist.”