Catholic Church converted to funeral home in Mallard
MALLARD — When the St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Mallard closed in 2018, many in the town of less than 300 people assumed it might just sit vacant.
But Phil Harris, owner of Harris Funeral Home, had a different idea.
Harris, who has owned funeral homes in West Bend, Mallard and Gilmore City since 1987, decided to purchase the old church, 409 S. Sixth St.
The church was built in 1954. It replaced another church built in 1889, which was torn down.
After taking possession of the property in July 2018, the building underwent a remodel.
The pews were removed and replaced with chairs. New furniture was added and the walls were painted.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Sioux City removed religious emblems.
The colorful stained glass windows remained.
The church reopened as a funeral home in late 2018. Harris sold the other funeral home in Mallard.
“We remodeled it and made it a nice building instead of letting it go to the dickens,” said Harris, a native of Onawa. “The community likes it and we like it.”
The new space has provided a comfortable place for people to celebrate the lives of loved ones lost.
“During the pandemic it’s been nice because we have had a lot of funerals that are small,” Harris said. “We have it at the funeral home in Mallard and have a lunch across the street with maybe 50 people, but they can spread out and have some fellowship afterwards.”
The church can seat over 200 people. The fellowship hall can hold closer to 250.
“We have had people come here for funerals that weren’t Mallard people but came here because of the facilities,” Harris said. “From that standpoint we are proud of it.”
The funeral home is non denominational.
“We have served every denomination from Catholic to Lutheran to Methodist,” Harris said. “It’s a community place.”
Harris graduated from Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science. He worked at Hamilton’s Funeral Home in Des Moines for 10 years before traveling north to buy a funeral home in West Bend.
Two part-time funeral directors work for Harris.
Jennifer Girres has been with Harris Funeral Home for nine years. She grew up in the converted Catholic church.
“I grew up going there,” Girres said. “I was baptized there, had first communion.”
She’s impressed with how the church has been transformed.
“When you walk in, you say, ‘oh wow,’ Girres said. “I knew what the church used to look like and I think they did a good job utilizing the space and I’m glad they can keep it open. I think the Mallard patrons are impressed with how it looks.”
Girres, a graduate of West Bend Mallard High School, completed the mortuary science program from Des Moines Area Community College.
She likes working in her hometown.
“The time goes by so fast because I’m talking and catching up with everyone,” she said. “Phil is great to work for, too. He knows I have kids and is understanding. I’ve learned from him as far as interacting with families.”
Although restrictions were placed on funeral homes during the pandemic, Girres said the Harris Funeral Home was able to overcome that.
“We have been fortunate enough to be able to host funerals the whole time in some aspect,” Girres said. “In a rural area it maybe hasn’t affected us as much but it’s still a lot different.”
Traci Johnston is the other part-time funeral director for Harris Funeral Home. She’s worked there for 20 years.
Johnston grew up in Onawa, the same city as Harris — although the two didn’t encounter each other there.
“It’s odd that Phil grew up there, too,” Johnston said. “We didn’t know each other. We both ended up in West Bend and in the funeral profession. That is very ironic.”
Johnston, who holds a mortuary science degree from Kansas City, Kansas Community College, is pleased with the redevelopment of the church.
“It’s very spacious and very roomy but at the same time there a couple more intimate seating areas that give it a warmer feel,” she said.
Johnston likes that the building is handicap accessible.
“It is one level, so we are able to accommodate all of the families we serve,” she said. “And also it makes it easier for the staff to accomplish their work as well. It makes it easier for everyone. A lot of churches have steps, or a lot of steps. This is on ground level.”
She’s happy to see the building be used.
“It’s great we were able to take a building that might have otherwise been empty and pay it back to the community and make it something that is beneficial for the community,” Johnston said.
Harris, who said he is nearing retirement, wound up in the funeral business essentially because he needed a job.
“I was a Simpson College student going to be a school teacher,” Harris said. “Back then in the 70s, you had about 250 applicants for every job opening, so I chose something else to do where I thought I could get a job.”
He’s proud of his longevity and the people has met.
“It’s a small town but they are proud people,” Harris said. “The Mallard people have been good to me over the years.”
He values his interactions with people.
“I’m old school but what I like is just visiting with people,” Harris said. “My basic theory and what I’ve tried to teach my help is we have to take care of the people that come through the front door, in whatever manner you do it. You have to be yourself and can’t be phony with people or they will see through you. I like being a regular guy that happens to do a good job for people when they need us.
“I don’t feel like we are better than anyone else. We just do our job and treat people how they are supposed to be treated and Friday night we’ll go out to eat with someone who is a friend of ours.”
The old Catholic church is a source of pride.
“I’d put that funeral home up against anyone’s in the area,” he said. “In any sized town.”