Hermitage parish celebrates 50 years of tight relationships


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A handful of Catholic families started vacationing around newly created Pomme de Terre Lake in Hickory County in the 1960s and early ’70s.

Several others retired to the area, and still others were drawn to Catholicism by the witness of those early families.

“St. Bernadette Parish is rather unique in this diocese in that it was founded not by Catholic immigrants from Europe in the 19th or early 20th century, but by summer vacationers and recent converts from within the area,” said Bishop W. Shawn McKnight.

He was in Hermitage Oct. 14 to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of St. Bernadette Parish, located in the southwestern corner of the diocese.

“I implore you to remain faithful to your roots, to your ancestors in the faith who sacrificed so much for God and for their Church,” the bishop proclaimed from the pulpit.

Faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, the people of Hickory County’s only Catholic parish set about reasserting its role as a hub of authentic worship and charitable activity. 

“What a great way to describe the ideal parish!” said Bishop McKnight. “A place where we are fed and nurtured and experience the mercy and love of God.”

Celebrating the Mass with the bishop were Father Benjamin Nwosu, pastor of the Hermitage parish and of St. Ann Parish in Warsaw and the Mission of Ss. Peter and Paul in Cole Camp, and Father Robert Fields, former pastor of the Hermitage parish, who now ministers in northeastern Missouri.

About 125 people attended a dinner reception in the parish hall after Mass.

“I feel blessed to be part of this faith community — caring and committed to Christ’s message to love God and our neighbor,” said Fr. Nwosu.

“The parishioners of St. Bernadette are wonderful and welcoming people,” he stated.

Beside restful water

In 1950, what was then the Diocese of Kansas City established the Mission of St. Bridget in Hermitage and built a small chapel on a hill overlooking the intersection of Highways 54 and 254.

The mission remained active until 1965.

Later, Precious Blood Father Donald Green, who was pastor of St. Ann Parish in Warsaw, began celebrating Mass in the Pomme de Terre  Lake area during the tourist season.

Father Joseph Starmann, who was serving in Jefferson City, set out in 1973 to create a full-fledged parish in the area.

Every Sunday during clement weather, he drove to Hermitage to preside at Mass near the shore of the lake.

Parishioners eventually bought land and built the original portion of the present church with their own hands.

“We all worked together,” longtime parishioner Lucy Brown, now deceased, recalled in 2011. “We were like a family. The women would cook while the men were building.”

The first Mass in the church was celebrated on Holy Thursday in 1976. The church was dedicated the following month.

The number of weekend congregants, especially during the tourist season, began overflowing the church.

The parish decided in October 1998 to add on to the front of the building, nearly doubling the total floor space and seating.

Weekend Masses are now offered at 4 p.m. each Saturday in the church.

The parish has about 70 registered households.

While serving as pastor, Fr. Starmann helped establish the Hickory County Ministerial Alliance, an interchurch ministry to help people in need throughout the county.

The parish consistently distinguishes itself with its welcoming spirit and charitable activities.

For several years, the former rectory served as a secure home for women and children escaping domestic violence.

Spilling over

St. Bernadette Parish caters to a primarily retired community.

Tourists and parishioners’ families swell the local population on weekends. Sporting enthusiasts come in search of one of the best fishing lakes in Missouri.

Clifton and Mary Kay Brooks began camping at Pomme de Terre in 1966.

Mrs. Brooks remembers going to Mass in the Lion’s Hall, which was much too small for all the tourists over the summer, and around Fr. Starmann’s outdoor altar at the lake.

“One time, a storm came up while he was saying Mass, and people were leaning over the altar and holding everything down,” she recalled.

“It got really bad, but he didn’t stop,” she noted. “He said that whole Mass in the storm.” 

The Brookses made Hermitage their year-round home 27 years ago.

“This has always been a church family,” said Mrs. Brooks. “I see a lot of people who don’t have any family close-by, so this is their family.”

Without a full-time pastor, the people of St. Bernadette pull together to keep things running smoothly.

“It’s a great family parish,” Mrs. Brooks stated. “And that’s how it started out: as a group of families. People work hard and work together and look out for each other.”

She recalled how a Sunday ritual of making and selling fresh donuts after Mass helped pay to start a Christmas toy program for children in need.

That program, now an interchurch effort, has spread to the entire county.

“They fill this hall with presents,” said Mrs. Brooks.

She said parishioners see the need to help people in need “because we’re Christians.”

“God put us all here for a purpose, and a big part of that is taking care of people,” she said.

Extended family

Kansas resident and part-time parishioner at St. Bernadette, Teresa Kilkenny, missed her 40-year high school class reunion in order to attend the St. Bernadette celebration.

“Because this is family to me,” she said.

Evelina Samborski was born in Collins, Missouri, “just down the road from here,” 99 years ago.

She and her husband decided over 20 years ago to spend their retirement in Hermitage.

Before long, the Samborskis felt like they’d always been members of St. Bernadette.

“I like these people,” said Mrs. Samborski. “They’re like family to me.”

Welcome home

Beth Lewis has been a St. Bernadette parishioner for three decades.

She grew up Catholic but did not practice her faith for about 15 years.

“One day, I’m sitting at home and I turn to my husband and say, ‘There’s something missing. I need to go back to church,’” she recalled.

The minute the couple walked through the doors of St. Bernadette, “we knew we were home,” she said. 

She noted that Catholics are a distinct minority in that part of the state.

“Sometimes, it’s interesting,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s challenging. But it’s always wonderful.”

She’s awestruck by the outreach activities the parish has undertaken through the years, especially when more people were living in the area.

The county has a heavy proportion of people who are elderly, as well as people of all ages who are in chronic need.

“We’ve got people on the board and who volunteer at the thrift store and the food pantry,” she said. “Every one of us is doing something related to charitable work.”

God is at the center of all of it, she insisted.

“You know, it is family, it is holy, and it is home,” she said, “even to outsiders and visitors.”


Bishop McKnight spoke of the importance of keeping the church doors and the parishioners’ hearts wide open.

“God desires everyone to be in his kingdom and therefore, everyone is to be welcomed in this parish,” the bishop said in his homily.

He pointed to the diocesan vision of parishes being universally recognized as centers of charity.

“It’s simply the idea that the Church, this network of relationships that makes up St. Bernadette Parish, is to be a sanctuary of mercy, a sanctuary of peace,” he said. 

He addressed the struggles and sacrifices the people of St. Bernadette Parish have taken up throughout the first 50 “Christians who suffer the demands of love and charity come to discover the true meaning and purpose of their lives,” the bishop noted.

Fr. Nwosu said the celebration was a testament to the deep Catholic faith that has been planted in Hickory county for over 50 years.

“Our ancestors in faith planted that seed in this place, and today God has blessed us immensely,” the priest stated. “We have continued to grow in holiness, in love of God and our neighbor.”

He said the people of St. Bernadette have enriched him by their faith and dedication.

He thanks God “for all blessings of this beautiful Catholic community over the past 50 years.”

“The love and passion for the Gospel is so intense,” the priest stated. “I feel so much love and friendship here.”

Mrs. Samborski invited anyone visiting or moving to the area to come to Mass and spend time with her and her fellow parishioners.

“You’ll feel like it’s where you belong,” she said. “I know that this is where I belong.”