Pettis County parishes, mission hope to combine

Seek to maintain all three as ministry sites — Request to have St. Vincent de Paul as their patron saint


“Allow yourself to be led by the Lord. He will direct all things through you. Trust Him, and following His example, always act humbly, gently and in good faith.”  — St. Vincent de Paul

One parish with three ministry sites.

That is what two parishes and one mission in Pettis County would become under a proposal sent to Bishop W. Shawn McKnight by the elected representatives of all three.

“We wish to create a new parish under which the present three faith communities, Sacred Heart, St. Patrick and St. John the Evangelist, would become ministry sites,” Precious Blood Father Mark Miller, pastor of the three, and the members of all three parish pastoral councils wrote to the bishop.

“We are recommending that the name of this new parish be St. Vincent de Paul, maintaining the history of Sedalia, since that was the name of the first parish in Sedalia prior to St. Patrick.”

Bishop McKnight will respond to the request after consulting with the diocesan Presbyteral Council.

Church law allows for such a change in parish structure in order to make the best use of the resources God provides for leading people to Him.

The people who crafted this plan believe it will help the entire Pettis County Catholic community grow in unity, holiness, strength and ability to minister and draw people into a deeper relationship with Christ.

It reflects the extensive collaboration already taking place among the three faith communities — especially in the areas of charitable endeavors, youth ministry, religious education, sacrament-preparation, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, ministry to and through the area’s sizable Hispanic population, and interparish support for Sacred Heart School, which offers pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

Under the proposal, all three church buildings would keep their names and continue to be locations for Mass, the sacraments, and external ministries to the community.

But they would be part of one parish, under the guidance of a single parish pastoral council and parish finance council.

The committees and commissions of each current parish would be combined to serve the needs of the new, larger parish.

The goal is to bring a renewed emphasis on collaboration and outreach, especially to people in need, people who have fallen away from active practice of the faith, and those who have not yet heard the Gospel.

Sacred Heart School would retain its name and would continue to be one of the primary ministries of the new parish.

Unity in mission

Sacred Heart parish has 848 registered households. St. Patrick has 416 and serves an unknown number of immigrant families who have not yet registered. St. John the Evangelist has 33.

Talk of combining parishes to ensure the health of the larger Catholic community came in response to the diocese’s two-year process of helping parishes assess and work toward improving their vitality and long-term viability.

This process, one of the priorities in the diocesan pastoral plan adopted by Bishop Emeritus John R. Gaydos in 2015, is a response to rapidly changing needs and realities in local communities and throughout the diocese.

The Sacred Heart, St. Patrick and St. John the Evangelist parish pastoral councils held several joint meetings to discuss the possibility and benefits of moving toward a more collaborative model of building up the Church.

They did not talk about closing their church.

“What was considered was how we could restructure ourselves so that not only would the people within our faith community be served, but how we might do our ministries more efficiently and more effectively,” said Fr. Miller.

The opportunities are plentiful. He noted that the number of people who attend Mass and regularly partake of the sacraments in the area have fallen precipitously over the years.

“However, if all of the inactive Catholics who we know are out there began coming to Mass, we would probably have to start adding Masses to our weekend schedule,” he said.

“This new beginning”

Each of the three parishes hosted town-hall meetings during the last week of November, to fill people in on the proposal and answer questions.

Each of the meetings started with a prayer.

“We know that many things have changed over the years,” the people prayed together. “We are now at a place which calls for a new approach to how we wish to be Church.

“We now ask for the power of the Spirit to guide us into the future full of hope and the conviction that God will bring us to a new creation.”

Many of the questions dealt with identity, logistics, finances and equitable representation on the reconstituted parish pastoral council.

Fr. Miller said there currently are no plans to change when and where weekend Masses are offered, although that might eventually become necessary.

He noted that fully integrating the three parish structures into one under civil and Church law would take time.

The objective, he said, was not so much to save money as to bring about “a closer unity of the people within our faith community.”

“We’d all be part of one new parish, responding to the needs of all the people,” he stated.

This is about Catholics actively helping to chart the course for the future, he said, rather than having outside forces dictate the action after it’s too late.

Sacred Heart parish pastoral council member David Dick suggested reclaiming St. Vincent de Paul as their patron saint.

“We decided we needed to embrace our history,” he said. “We’re all kind of coming back to where we started.”

 “I think we’ll see good things happen with this new beginning,” another parish council member stated.

At the end of each town-hall meeting, the members of the host parish’s pastoral council signed the letter to the bishop.

Two of the signatories — Mr. Dick and Mike Bahner of St. John the Evangelist — are descendants of people who signed their own parish’s founding documents.

Hearts on fire

Sedalia was part of the old Kansas City diocese 100 years ago when Bishop Thomas F. Lillis decreed that Ohio Avenue would be the territorial boundary between Sacred Heart and St. Patrick parishes.

For many years after that, both parishes carried on their ministries largely separately from one another.

Chuck Mattingly’s parents bought a house west of Ohio Avenue when they moved back to Sedalia in 1968 after four years in North Dakota.

His mother still has a copy of the letter she wrote to Bishop Joseph M. Marling C.PP.S. of Jefferson City, now deceased, seeking permission to rejoin St. Patrick parish, because they lived in the territory of Sacred Heart.

She also has the letter he wrote back, granting permission.

Efforts to foster collaboration between the Sedalia parishes and Bahner mission began in earnest in the 1980s, when the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, which has been ministering at Sacred Heart since 1882, accepted responsibility for St. Patrick from the diocese.

As pastor of St. Patrick and later of both parishes, the late Precious Blood Father Thomas Albers emphasized collaboration at every opportunity.

“We started having these discussions back when Fr. Tom was our pastor” in the late 1990s and early 2000s, said Mr. Mattingly, a lifelong St. Patrick parishioner who is president of the St. Patrick parish pastoral council.

Several years ago, people in both parishes and the mission started referring to themselves as the Pettis County Catholic Community.

“We’ve already been working a lot together,” said Mr. Mattingly. “Now, it looks like this is a place we need to go in order to remain viable.”

He said viability is “important for the growth of the Catholic community, for the growth of the Catholic school and the growth of our faith.”

He believes it’s possible to respect the histories and identities of what are now three separate congregations while working more closely together to achieve common goals — especially helping young people stay connected with Christ, and helping all Catholics pursue their calling from God.

“It needs to be done, and I’m tickled to death that we’ve come this far with it,” he stated.

He said many questions were asked at the St. Patrick town hall meeting, and they all got answered.

After the closing prayer came a round of applause, followed by handshakes.

Then came the signing of the letter to Bishop McKnight.

“I’m not going to lie: It was a bit emotional, especially for those of us who have been with the parish our whole life or our whole adult life,” said Mr. Mattingly.

“But what’s burning in my heart about this is that I’m really looking forward to growing into a new parish, the parish of St. Vincent de Paul,” he said.

Things in common

Doug Benitz, president of the St. John the Evangelist parish pastoral council, lives about midway between Bahner and Sedalia and previously served on Sacred Heart’s parish council and school board.

“There are so many things we can learn from each other,” he said. “There are many things we already share in common.”

He believes becoming one parish will ensure more communication among the people who call all three ministry sites home.

It will also be a key to maintaining vitality in the local Church.

He noted that St. John the Evangelist hasn’t had a resident pastor for many years, and that generations of laypeople have been keeping things going.

“We’re not a very big group but a very consistent group, a very hands-on, working group,” he said. “We treasure that as part of our identity and our history.”

Many arrive for Mass as much as 45 minutes ahead of time to catch up with friends and are usually still around 45 minutes or an hour after the last hymn is sung.

He believes cultivating that kind of welcoming environment will be key to helping the new St. Vincent de Paul parish grow.

“You never know for certain how things are going to go,” he said. “You just have to take that first step forward in faith, knowing that somehow, some way, this is all going to work out.

“We all have an opportunity here, a chance to be better,” he said. “Everyone knows we’re better together than we are apart.”

Being Catholic

Fr. Miller hopes the proposed restructuring will help everyone better understand what it means to be Catholic.

He noted that in past generations, Catholics were often heavily invested in their allegiance to their individual parishes.

“Being part of a parish is still how we get most of our support and encouragement,” he said. “But the center of who we are is not our parish. We are Catholic, with Christ at the center of everything.”

He emphasized that the mission of all parishes, along with the entire Church, is to announce the Good News, pass along the faith, and provide opportunities for the sacraments to be celebrated and received.

“We are not to be in competition with one another,” he said. “We are to be in solidarity with one another and connect with one another and recognize that we share in a common mission.”

He also asked everyone to continue praying and working together to draw people back into the practice of their faith and to cultivate more vocations to the priestly and religious life.