By SUZANNE KOZIATEK
Immaculate Conception Church perches on Kaskaskia Island, a tiny outpost of Illinois on the western side of the Mississippi River.
For more than three months this summer, its perch got a bit lonelier, as rising floodwaters covered the main road into the town, cutting off the church from most of its congregants.
Members made do, as the church often has over the past 300-plus years of its existence. They found refuge at another church down the road and patiently waited out the river’s encroachment.
But on Saturday, Aug. 17, they returned to their home church for their first Mass since April 26.
“Everybody was smiling, the church was pretty full,” says Emily Lyons, a member of the committee that runs the church, which was designated as a chapel by the Diocese of Belleville in 1994.
Father Leo Hayes, a retired priest, was back to say Mass, as he usually does on Saturdays at the Kaskaskia church.
“About a hundred people were there,” he says. “It was a nice welcome back home.”
Although the levees that ring the island were able to keep floodwaters away from the church over the summer months, they also held in the steady rains, causing water to rise within the town.
“The water went pretty high for a long time,” Lyons says. “It stayed up and grew slowly.”
Fortunately, Immaculate Conception did not suffer any damage from this flooding. However, the 200-year-old rectory had water seepage in the basement, she says.
“The foundation shifted, so now there’s a crack in the wall,” Lyons says. “We’re in the process of talking to professionals to get it looked at.”
It’s the latest challenge to a church that can trace its origins to missionary and explorer Pere Jacques Marquette. He established the Immaculate Conception mission in 1673 in northern Illinois, moving it to Kaskaskia around 1700 following an American Indian migration.
The mission built its first stone church there in 1714 and had become an established parish by 1720.
Over the years, the church was moved and rebuilt – often as a result of flooding – and settled in its current location in 1894. Meanwhile, the Mississippi River shifted to the east, cutting off Kaskaskia from the rest of Illinois.
Flooding continued to plague the parish, culminating in 1993’s historic flood.
“After ‘93, we had a lot of damage to the church,” Lyons says. “The levee was breached then and everybody flooded, the whole valley.”
In the wake of that flood, the damaged church was designated as a chapel, and operations were taken over by a group of church members who wanted to restore and preserve it. They raised money to maintain the buildings and the cemetery and bring in retired priests to celebrate weekly Mass.
Father Hayes has been celebrating Mass regularly on Saturdays at Immaculate Conception for a little more than a year.
“I’ve fallen in love with the parish,” he says. “There are three women who keep that parish running and they do an excellent job. Sacraments are administered, people love their parish.”
This three-month disruption was unusual, Lyons says. Still, she says there was no thought given to shutting down their church entirely.
“I don’t think it ever entered our minds,” she says. “It’s such a historic church. We feel an obligation to keep it going.”
The church building is full of treasured reminders of the past. The wooden altar dates back to early mission days, and the altar stone is said to have come from France with Father Marquette. The Stations of the Cross are set in hand-carved frames from the 1800s.
“They’ve got one of those old-fashioned pulpits that you have to climb up into,” Father Hayes says. “I’ve never climbed up there, but I keep thinking I will someday.”
During the flooded months, the members moved their Mass to another Immaculate Conception Church – this one in St. Mary, Mo.
That parish was closed by the Archdiocese of St. Louis in 2018 and similarly designated as a chapel.
“Some devoted parishioners there got busy and looked up how to do what we were doing,” Lyons says.
The St. Mary church holds Mass twice a month, and the Kaskaskia church brought in a priest to say Saturday Mass on alternate weekends. Updates about Mass times were posted on Facebook and reported on local radio stations.
“We just took it day by day,” Lyons says. “Some people stayed on the island and maintained the levee. There was a 24/7 patrol – we’d send food over to them.”
With the church reopened, members are concentrating on getting things back to normal. Immaculate Conception’s annual fundraising picnic was scheduled Sept. 1.
Lyons says the chapel still plays an important role in the community.
“Usually, more than 100 people show up (for Mass),” she says. “On holidays, it’s standing room only.
“It serves a population that nobody else does. We see a lot of travelers – from the East Coast, the West Coast – who had ancestors from here. It’s a smaller church, so the aisles are shorter, which some people prefer, especially if they use walkers.”
And she says, flood waters permitting, there’s always room for more visitors.
“The church seats 150 – but we have lots of folding chairs.”