By Elizabeth Wong Barnstead, The Western Kentucky Catholic
The line of people processing from St. Francis of Assisi Parish’s fellowship hall into the new church building on Dec. 9, 2017 just kept coming – until the church was filled to capacity, with standing room only.
However, the several hundred parishioners and friends of the newly-built Todd County church did not seem to mind the close quarters.
They were gathered with Bishop William F. Medley to begin the dedication Mass of their new church, in what one parishioner called “your own church home.”
“It feels good to finally be in our church home,” said Mark Isaac, a parishioner interviewed by The Western Kentucky Catholic after the liturgy.
Isaac said it was a “joyous feeling” because for the longest time, “we felt we’d never come to this day.”
“The turnout was amazing,” he said. “My hope and prayers are that we continue to grow and expand. It’s amazing; I love it.”
St. Francis of Assisi Parish had been established in March 2016, through merging the parishes of St. Susan in Elkton and SS. Mary and James in Guthrie.
Several years ago, both parishes had been wondering how to address the slowly-but-surely growing Catholic demographic, largely due to the many Latino families moving to the area. The communities were all but outgrowing their respective parish churches.
Then, SS. Mary and James’ church and parish hall tragically burned down in an electrical fire in 2015.
Because both parishes already shared many resources – as well as a priest, Fr. Frank Ruff, GHM – they began discussing building a brand-new church for both communities to become one.
The property for the new church was donated by parishioners Ed and Dorothy Slack, and the groundbreaking took place on Dec. 8, 2016 – exactly a year and one day ago from the Dec. 9, 2017 dedication.
The sense of two parishes becoming one new family was apparent in the dedication Mass being bilingual, with ample involvement from both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking parishioners.
Bishop Medley gave his homily in English, with Deacon Chris Gutiérrez, diocesan director of Hispanic ministry, standing beside him as Spanish interpreter.
“To approach the altar for sacrifice is to draw near to God,” said the bishop. “The altar is a symbol of great communion with God.”
After the bishop’s homily and after the recitation of the Nicene Creed, the choir sang the Litany of the Saints as all knelt in prayer.
Bishop Medley then anointed the altar with sacred chrism, a blessed oil made of olive oil and Balsam-scented oil and used for specific occasions such as ordinations and baptisms. The walls of the church were also anointed with the chrism.
“We now anoint this altar and building,” prayed the bishop. “May God in his power make them holy, visible signs of the mystery of Christ and his Church.”
The church was then incensed as the bishop prayed that “as this building is filled with fragrance so may your Church fill the world with the fragrance of Christ.”
Deacon Heriberto Rodriguez, the parish life coordinator, set the brand-new Paschal Candle before the baptismal font. The church, which had been in partial darkness until this point, was illuminated as all of the church’s lights were turned on and the sanctuary candles were lit.
At the conclusion of Mass, the bishop told the parish community to continue spreading the Gospel.
“You are the living stones upon which the Body of Christ continues to be built,” said the bishop.
A celebration in the fellowship hall followed the Mass, and the meal was served by members of the local Mennonite community.
The Rev. Buck Tidwell, pastor of nearby Tiny Town Baptist Church, was also present at the Mass and celebration afterwards.
Rev. Tidwell’s congregation had opened their church doors to the local Catholics, after the 2015 fire left the latter without a place to worship.
The many Christian communities in Todd County have had a strong history of collaboration to serve the greater area. But the relationship between Tiny Town Baptist and St. Francis of Assisi blossomed even more during the two years of sharing a building.
Rev. Tidwell told the WKC that the day was bittersweet, as they had spent “over 120 weeks together.”
“It is a great thing for them to have their own church,” he said, but “we’ve made friends and memories together. It’s good, but also a little sad.”
Fortunately, their relationship will continue, even if the two do not share a building. They will continue “helping the community together,” along with their fellow Christian communities, he said.
Deacon Rodriguez told the WKC in a Dec. 13 follow-up interview that the day was certainly one of mixed emotions.
“We have a strong relationship (with Tiny Town),” he said. “We cannot forget the years they helped and supported us.”
At the same time, “we are happy that we are in our new home,” said Deacon Rodriguez. “It looks great, and it feels like home, and it feels like community.”
This story originally ran in the January 2018 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.