Bishop W. Shawn McKnight has accepted and acted upon a request from the pastoral council of the Mission of St. Martha in Wayland to be combined with neighboring St. Michael parish in Kahoka.
The bishop will preside at the closing Liturgy at St. Martha Church at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 9.
All current and former parishioners and anyone else with ties to St. Martha are invited and encouraged to attend.
“As I have been emphasizing since I arrived to lead this diocese, we are better when we are together,” Bishop McKnight stated. “I have every confidence that as one united congregation, the people of St. Michael parish and the Mission of St. Martha will be able to serve God and one another better, helping them grow in faith and love and in leading others to Christ.”
The St. Martha council’s request to fold the mission canonically into St. Michael parish informed Bishop McKnight’s decision.
“I am grateful to the people of both communities for working together throughout the process that led to this arrangement,’” he said.
The St. Martha Pastoral Council members Cheryl Buschling, Alice Morehouse, Ed Riney and Dixie Small, have almost 60 years of combined experience on the council.
“We are saddened by the closing, but we all agree it’s what’s best for the Church community,” said Ms. Morehouse in a Nov. 12 interview.
“The four of us fought hard to keep the keep the church going,” said Ms. Buschling. “But in the end, it turned out to be the right decision that we close it.”
She added that “when God closes one door, He always opens another.”
“I think we’re becoming peacefully resigned to it,” said Mr. Riney, who has been part of St. Martha for 71 years.
The decision followed a lengthy process of discernment.
A growing shortage of priests and a decline in the Catholic population in Lewis and Clark counties in the diocese’s northeastern corner led Bishop John R. Gaydos, now retired, in 2016 to assign one priest to serve the six parishes and missions there.
St. Martha had 27 registered households in 2016, with an average weekly Mass attendance of 56, up from 36 the previous year.
There were no infant baptisms, youth confirmations, marriages or funerals that year. There were five elementary-school students in the Parish School of Religion, and three in high school PSR.
Father Christopher Aubuchon, who was pastor, and Kristin Roth, recently retired parish life collaborator for St. Michael in Kahoka, Shrine of St. Patrick in St. Patrick and St. Martha in Wayland, set up a rotating schedule through which Mass was offered in three of the six parishes and missions each weekend.
At the same time, all of the parishes in the diocese undertook a vitality and viability study facilitated by diocesan personnel and a group of volunteers.
Representatives of the parishes and missions met by deanery last winter to work on comprehensive recommendations for how to minister to the people in light of the rapidly decreasing number of available priests.
Based on that outcome, Bishop McKnight announced in May of this year that regular Sunday Mass would no longer be offered in LaGrange, St. Patrick or Wayland. One weekday Mass per week would be offered in St. Patrick.
Mindful of the difficulty of meeting financial obligations without regularly having Mass, the St. Martha council held a meeting with parishioners to talk about the future.
“First we prayed,” said Ms. Small. “We asked God to help us make the right decision.”
“We explained the situation, and people understood,” said Ms. Morehouse. “I think our members have been pretty accepting, pretty much in agreement.”
The council wrote to Bishop McKnight on June 11, asking that the mission be closed.
The bishop signed the Official Decree of Closure on Oct. 28.
“It’s another step in life,” said Mr. Riney. “Everything changes and you have to have the courage to accept it.”
The Catholic presence in the area dates back to the 1830s with the founding of what is now Shrine of St. Patrick parish.
The Wayland mission, originally named for the Assumption of Mary, came into being in 1887 as one of several served from St. Michael in Kahoka.
Many of the current parishioners are descendants of the founding families.
For years, priests arrived by train to offer Mass one Sunday a month, often accepting parishioners’ overnight hospitality.
Parish activities came to include picnics at Keating’s Grove, ice cream socials in the churchyard, and winter card parties.
By 1963, the original frame church needed to be replaced. Father Joseph O’Rourke appointed a committee to oversee construction of a new one.
The Catholic Extension Society of America donated $10,000 from the estate of a woman named Martha Fitzgerald. The only stipulation was that the parish be renamed in honor of her patron saint.
While the church was being built, Mass was offered in Bill and Fred Bowen’s nearby machine shop. Birds flew freely above the parishioners who braved primitive conditions during the months of construction.
When rain fell on the tin roof, “you couldn’t hear a thing!” Mr. Riney recalled.
Bishop Joseph M. Marling C.PP.S., founding bishop of Jefferson City, dedicated the new church in 1965.
In addition to Mass and the sacraments, parishioners continued building community with monthly potluck suppers after Saturday evening Mass, along with twice-a-year turkey noodle dinner fundraisers and a fall bazaar.
Each Christmas and Easter, they’d have a cookie and candy walk.
Ms. Roth in 2011 became the latest in a series of pastoral administrators — now known as parish life collaborators — to serve the Kahoka, St. Patrick and Wayland congregations.
Several parishioners noted that one of St. Martha’s greatest strengths has always been its people, who assumed responsibility for everything from routine maintenance to remodeling.
“The Wayland Catholic parish community experienced many changes, but it survived for 130 years strengthened and sustained by the faith of its people,” they stated.
Ms. Buschling said the people of St. Martha have always been willing to “step up” and take care of things that needed doing.
“We just jumped in and did it,” she said.
Many of the people of St. Martha have already joined the Kahoka parish. Some travel to St. Joseph in Canton for Mass, while others go as far as All Saints in Keokuk, Iowa.
Their new pastor, Father Robert Fields, has been helping them go through everything in St. Martha Church and decide which items will go where.
“It’s been tough,” Ms. Morehouse acknowledged.
“We’ve already gotten everything moved out except for what we’ll need on Dec. 9,” said Mr. Riney. “Then we’ll take everything that’s left to Kahoka.”
All four said they hope they can take with them the extremely tight camaraderie that has been a hallmark of St. Martha’s for decades.
“We used to have a lot of large families,” Mr. Riney noted. “The church used to be packed. It dwindled down. Young people kept moving away.
“But our friendships have always run deep,” he said. “And our love for God and His Church has never wavered.”
“This is the only Catholic church I’ve been a member of,” said Ms. Small. “We’re small but we’re united. So it’s much like a family.”
Ms. Buschling moved to Wayland 40 years ago after growing up in what is now the largest parish in the St. Louis archdiocese.
“I like a small church better,” she said.
“We’re all family and we’re all close,” said Ms. Morehouse.
But even more so, they’re Catholic and always will be.
“We were born and raised Catholic and have never been anything else,” said Mr. Riney. “It’s what we believe.”
“It’s our faith. I can’t imagine being anything else,” said Ms. Morehouse.
“Having faith is No. 1,” said Ms. Small. “To me, it means being chosen and special and happy.”
“Our traditions and the sacraments, how we worship God and the reverence we have for Mary, all of that ties into it,” said Ms. Buschling.
What they ask for now are prayers for unity.
“We’ve always known that we’re part of something bigger, but it will take a while to stop thinking of ourselves as St. Martha’s,” said Mr. Riney.
Fr. Fields is urging the people of St. Martha to continue practicing their faith as a member of St. Michael or another parish.
He said he’s looking forward to the leaven effect the longtime St. Martha parishioners will have on the neighboring congregations.
Bishop McKnight echoed that idea while anticipating the Dec. 9 closing Liturgy and beyond.
“I look forward to celebrating with the people of St. Martha all the great work God has done through them and with them, and giving thanks to Him for everything He still wishes to accomplish with them as members of a united St. Michael Church,” he said.
Historical information in this article came from Anna Marie Hennessy, Cindy Betz and Bonnilyn Pepple Neyens.