Two parishes suppressed in Hamilton County as part of restructuring plan

The last Mass was held Sunday at St. Clement.

Staff writer

Two southern Illinois parishes in Hamilton County have been suppressed as part of the ongoing diocesan Pastoral Plan for Parish Renewal and Restructuring.

St. Clement of Rome Parish in McLeansboro, and St. John Nepomucene Parish in Dahlgren will now be designated as chapels of the “Mother church,” St. John the Baptist Parish in Piopolis. The three rural communities are located about 80 to 90 miles southeast of Belleville.

Father Slawomir Ptak, who has been administrator of the three parishes since 2011, says the decision marks the end of a long process that preceded his tenure.

“The three parishes were together for a long time under the leadership of my predecessor, Monsignor Joseph Lawler, who was pastor here for almost 30 years,” Father Ptak says. “During that time, two of these parishes shared one priest, and then over the last decade or so, all three of them shared one priest.”

All three parishes date back more than 125 years. According to church histories, St. John the Baptist is the oldest of the three; a log church was built in Piopolis in 1846 to serve German immigrants. The priest in Piopolis traveled to other local communities, including McLeansboro, by horseback. In 1880, land was set aside for St. Clements in McLeansboro, and in 1893, a group split off from St. John the Baptist to form St. John Nepomucene in Dahlgren.

The Pastoral Plan for Parish Renewal and Restructuring was initiated by Bishop Braxton in 2011 to position the diocese better to deal with declining numbers of available parish priests. It has led to parish partnerships throughout Southern Illinois, and in some cases, to the closure of parishes.

In the case of St. John the Baptist, St. Clement and St. John Nepomucene, there have been discussions for several years about the relationship between the parishes and how it would change, Father Ptak says.
“We spoke about it from the pulpit in church, in homilies, in inserts in parish bulletins, on social media and on the parish website,” he says. “The parish councils of each parish had the topic of this ongoing process on their agenda.”

In August 2016 and again in October 2018, representatives from all three parishes met with Bishop Braxton to discuss the matter further. Bishop Braxton officially announced the suppression of the parishes on Feb. 2, citing consultation with the Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia, Reverend Monsignor John W. McEvilly; and the Vicar Forane of the East Vicariate, The Very Reverend Mark D. Stec. The decision took effect March 4.

Prior to this change, weekly Masses were split among the three churches: at St. Clement of Rome at 5 p.m. on Saturdays; at St. John the Baptist at 8 a.m. on Sundays and at St. John Nepomucene at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays. Each church also had one weekday Mass, Father Ptak says.

Now, all weekend Masses will be held at St. John the Baptist. The other two church buildings have been designated as chapels, allowing them to be used for funerals and weddings, with the former parish halls being available for social activities, meetings, classes and other events.

Official records from each of the suppressed parishes will be transferred to St. John the Baptist.

Some of the parish functions are unaffected, as they have been conducted jointly for years. None of the parishes currently have a Catholic school, and PSR programs were unified in 2014, Father Ptak says. The three churches have shared a website, and social media accounts.

St. John Nepomucene parishioner Rita Rapp says the process put parish against parish which was unfortunate. “It created hard feelings,” she says. She called the closing of her church a “gut-wrenching” experience. “My faith will survive it, but it’s been a struggle.”

Rapp, originally from St. John the Baptist, Piopolis, says she remains very proud of her church, which she married into. “It was the kindest church I’ve ever been in and remains so today,” she says.

Father Ptak agrees that the decision has been a painful development for many of them.

“Some refer to it as an ‘ugly and nasty divorce,’ and some say this is the funeral of their parish,” Father Ptak says. “Of course, there are also parishioners who feel relief and look with positivity to the future.

“However, all of them need time to grieve and gentle assistance during this time of transition.”

He himself believes that there is reason for optimism going forward, as the next generation of Catholics absorbs the change.

“Young people are great and very creative. They do not know boundaries and are open-minded. They will do well, and they are the future of our church, our nation and the world,” Father Ptak says.

He says parishioners at the two suppressed parishes scheduled closing Masses and community meals to mark the transition.

In a letter to The Messenger, Curtis Richardson of Dahlgren, wrote:

The first weekend in March has been a tough one for the Catholics of Hamilton County.  The suppression of two much loved churches has been met with floods of tears and complex emotions. St. Clement of Rome (McLeansboro) and St. John Nepomucene (Dahlgren) are now chapels, to be used for funerals & weddings for the time being.  St. John The Baptist (Piopolis) will remain as the lone Catholic Church in our county.  The shortage of priests has hit home and we face the reality that while we have a priest to serve our county now, that might very well not be the case in years or even months to come.  Back before the Civil War, our county was served by a “circuit rider” who traveled on horseback from Kentucky to serve Catholic immigrants from Germany.  While it is unlikely that we will have to share a priest with another state or that he will have to come by horse, it is very likely that we will have to share with a parish or parishes in other counties.  We have been praying for vocations for years, and will continue to do so as we remain “Catholic Strong”.