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Changes continue in Corpus Christi Parish

Paul Stevens

For 136 years, Christmas services have been celebrated at Corpus Christi Church — through two world wars, the Great Depression and many other major events as Fort Dodge grew from a town of 2,500 residents when the church was founded to a city of 25,000.

This year’s services will be the last at the iconic Fort Dodge landmark, one of the oldest continuously operated churches in the United States and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the last of eight Catholic churches in Webster County to remain open.

“For most people, for myself, it’s a recognition that OK, we’re going to celebrate this marvelous feast of the Incarnation — but it is not the last time we celebrate that great feast,” said Monsignor Kevin McCoy, pastor of Holy Trinity Parish. “We very much look toward the hope, the excitement that something new brings.”

A year from now, Catholics of Webster County will celebrate Christmas in a brand-new church — Holy Trinity Catholic Church — at a location next to St. Edmond Catholic School that once was farmland when Corpus Christi was dedicated in 1883 and more recently was used as a football field and track.

That “excitement” McCoy speaks of is progressing day by day as construction workers have finished off the roof of the new church and are now doing brick and stonework outside while building out the inside area and laying surfaces for the parking lots next to it.

Corpus Christi will remain open until the long-awaited grand opening of Holy Trinity Church – expected in late June or early July of 2020.

A shortage of priests — part of a national phenomenon facing the U.S. Catholic Church — was the driving force in the consolidation of the Fort Dodge churches. McCoy and the Rev. Brian Feller are the only priests to serve the 2,435 households in Webster County, which at one time had 12 priests. The Sioux City Diocese covers 24 counties, but has only 47 priests. McCoy said that within 15 years, 33 priests — himself included — could retire and that there are only 12 men in seminary in the process of becoming priests.

“The parishioners involved have been wonderful and create an excitement that helps carry us on,” said McCoy, who came to Fort Dodge in 2008. “Personally, we face a real challenge with just two priests trying to stay abreast of the oversight of construction, fundraising and so on, while still providing the sacramentals of our parishioners’ lives. I may get a call, ‘the contactor needs to see you about a window’ and in the next moment hear from a family wanting to make funeral arrangements. There’s enough of me to be two but I don’t know how to do that.”

Four deacons are assigned to the parish. They are able to baptize and help preside at weddings and funerals that do not involve the Mass. Rick Salocker works with the parish food pantry, Dan Carney with the homebound, Ed Albright with the prison ministry and homebound, and Joe Coleman with the sick, and as a hospital chaplain.

Holy Trinity Parish was created in 2006 by a decree from Bishop R. Walker Nickless. At that time, there were three worship sites in Fort Dodge — Corpus Christi, Holy Rosary and Sacred Heart — and five others in the county: St. Joseph in Barnum, St. Matthew in Clare, Christ the King in Dayton, St, Joseph in Duncombe, and Our Lady of Good Counsel in Moorland. All but Corpus Christi are now closed as worship sites, the latest, Sacred Heart, occurring in September. (Weddings and funerals are still conducted at Moorland.)

Long-range planning for a single worship site began within a couple years and after extensive study, the parish got the go-ahead to proceed. In 2016, Holy Trinity launched a five-year fund drive to raise $12 million to build the church, and ground-breaking took place Aug. 1, 2018. Tom Miklo, St. Edmond development director, said $9.5 million in pledges has been received from 600-plus households and $8 million-plus of it is in hand. There have been a couple of large gifts, he said. “All things said, it is really remarkable where we are today, given that it’s been a long haul.”

It has not been easy for parishioners to lose their churches, a part of their family and their heritage from birth to death.

“Everybody hates to close any of the churches because they are beautiful things,” said J. Mick Flaherty, longtime member of Corpus Christi parish who is on the church planning committee. “We have two priests for the whole county. We’re lucky to keep two. I think it’s getting better because they can see the building — still, there are so many heartstrings, no one wants to close these churches.”

Hiedi Touney, Holy Trinity parish life director, agrees and believes that as the new structure has taken form, the sense of loss by some parishioners of their home parish is lessening.

“There’s a definite sense that no matter where you are, where you had once worshipped and the loss of that heritage, people are seeing it being built and are now experiencing one church,” she said. “We’re all starting to blend. We’re all going to have to learn new ways. We all will be in same boat when we go into the new church.”

Jonathan Flattery, who with his wife, Liz, were involved in fundraising and design work for the new church, was a member of Sacred Heart parish and believes “the pockets of resentment” held by some over losing their own church are easing. He said he is thankful for those who are “doing heavy lifting financially and building our faith here in our town.”

The 26,000-square-foot church will have seating for 1,000 — and if needed, temporary seating in the narthex area. It will be totally accessible, invaluable to those who because of disability or age have found access to the worship centers too challenging to attend Mass. Steps had to be climbed at both Corpus Christi and Sacred Heart, and an elevator installed at Sacred Heart was not dependable.

“The fact that the physical barriers are removed will make the new site more inviting,” McCoy said. “I also think that having one site will help in terms of the quality of the liturgy — already there is a new men’s choral group experimenting with what music they might be able to provide.”

In an effort to preserve some of the history of the churches being replaced, key elements from some of those worship centers are being incorporated into the new church.

Examples include: the 14 Stations of the Cross at Corpus Christi, hand-carved in Oberammergau, Germany, age unknown; the hand-carved red-oak pew ends at Sacred Heart Church to be used as the pew ends for pews in the new church and the marble top of its altar that will be reworked into the new church’s altar; a statue of Mary and Joseph, hand-carved in Italy, from St. Joseph Church in Barnum that will be used in the day chapel of the new church.

Touney said an attempt will be made to move the Grotto next to Corpus Christi Church over to the Holy Trinity Catholic Church property when the new church is completed.

“The design team and others tried to find ways artifacts from the eight worship centers could be used in the new church, without making it seem like Grandma’s Attic,” McCoy said. “Many of these artifacts are being reutilized so that a piece of our history is still very much in our worship.”

The school building across the street from Corpus Christi Church, known as the Corpus Christi Center, will remain open for such uses as funeral luncheons, Knights of Columbus fish fries and the like for the next couple years, Touney said, until the next phase of development would bring a social hall close by to the new church. Also in future plans is an enclosed walkway between St. Edmond school and the new church.

Will the new church build attendance? McCoy responds:

“Of course, the reality is that the demographic of rural America continues to shift. I know when I was ordained almost 40 years ago, there were 120,000 Catholics in Northwest Iowa; now the number is around 80,000. Even the city of Fort Dodge is working on efforts to encourage former residents (younger graduates of our schools) to return to make Fort Dodge home – so it is not just a matter impacting churches. Our pastoral planning focuses on promoting more opportunities to gather to discuss and share their faith; and new initiatives are being worked on that the new church facility will help to foster. There is a need for a renewed evangelization in this age; to awaken people to their spiritual side and a need to interact as a community. Certain technologies discourage that; virtual communities online just don’t meet our human social needs.”

A major question facing McCoy and church leaders will come after the new church is opened: What to do with the old churches?

The Holy Rosary church building has been sold to Community Christian School. The church at Barnum has been sold and the church at Duncombe torn down and the land sold, Touney said. The parish still owns the facilities at Clare, Dayton and Moorland, as well as Sacred Heart and Corpus Christi.

“The parish council will be looking at all options to repurpose these worship centers with certain entities and in the case of Sacred Heart and Corpus Christi, the city of Fort Dodge,” she said. “There’s some growing interest in repurposing Sacred Heart — it’s great for music, the acoustics incredible. Is there any way to use it for the performing arts? The city is looking at different things.

“There will not be a rush to do something. The centers will be winterized while these efforts go on. There won’t be wrecking cranes and bulldozers anytime soon.”

Prospects for a new purpose for the venerable Corpus Christi Church are slim. Its brick is soft and porous and is wearing out, allowing water to come into the structure, Touney said.

“It’s unlikely it can ever be repurposed. There’s been discussion on whether it can remain standing because of its historic value. Perhaps. But there is nothing definitive at this time.”

Flaherty said he prays every day “for the church and for wisdom in running it. In the end, a church is the people. It’s not the brick and mortar.”