Five rural parishes in the Belleville Catholic Diocese will be closed and combined with other parishes on March 3 -- the first closings since the Pastoral Plan for Parish Renewal and Restructuring was announced last year.
"These five parishes have made difficult decisions. They are painful decisions," Bishop Edward Braxton said Monday in a written statement. "But the challenges are so great that real and difficult decisions must be made.
The parishes that will be closed are St. Leo in Modoc, Immaculate Conception in Bridgeport, St. Catherine of Alexandria in Grand Chain, St. Mary in Mound City, and St. Francis Xavier in St. Francisville.
"The people of these five parishes have made these decisions -- at the parish and partnership levels -- and then their recommendations have been sent to me for implementation," Braxton said. "Over time, every parish in the diocese will be affected in some way by this undertaking."
Msgr. Daniel Jurek, pastor at both St. Leo and St. Joseph in Prairie du Rocher, said the decision to close St. Leo has been in the making for a couple of years.
"We came to the conclusion that the parish is very small, which it is with 26 families," Jurek said. "You just can't keep these little ones going."
The bishop and the parish families "felt that it was difficult to keep the parish going as a spiritual entity," Jurek said.
The Very Rev. Eugene Wojcik, the dean of the West Vicariate for the diocese, said, "We don't have the resources to enable us to meet all the needs of all the parishes, as our priests get older and as we get fewer in number.
All five of the parishes that will be closed were sharing a pastor with at least one other parish, Wojcik said.
He said the parish closures are not something that the diocese would necessarily want to do, "but for the needs of the future, it's one of the things we're responsible to do -- pass on the faith."
Braxton will preside over the final Mass on Feb. 23 at St. Leo.
"I admire him for that because a lot of bishops would not go to a parish that is closing for the final Mass," Jurek said.
The Mass will be followed by a "rite of leave taking," where important religious objects will be removed from the church, including the statue of St. Leo, the sacred oils used in sacraments, sacramental books where wedding and baptisms are recorded, and "family Christmas ornaments" given to the church by parishioners, Jurek said.
"The next Sunday, we will take them here to St. Joseph," said Jurek.
On March 2, a Mass of welcoming will be held at St. Joseph. Jurek said he wants the families from St. Leo to celebrate merging with St. Joseph.
"We want to welcome them," he said. "From March 2 on, we are also somewhat of a new parish. Together we now form a new parish."
St. Joseph is about eight miles from St. Leo, said Jurek, who has made the commute every weekend for the past five years.
Jurek said some parishioners will move to St. Joseph, but others may choose to go to St. Patrick in Ruma, St. John the Baptist in Red Bud or Divine Maternity in Ellis Grove.
"We're all close together," Jurek said. "The bishop encourages them to come here, to St. Joseph, because the parish boundaries will now incorporate that area."
St. Leo has not had its own pastor since the late 1950s or early '60s, Jurek said. At that time they shared a pastor with St. Patrick in Ruma. About five years ago, St. Leo merged with St. Joseph to share a pastor.
Diocese officials are not sure what to do with the church building, Jurek said.
"We don't have anybody that wants to buy it, we don't want to raze it," Jurek said. "They want to try to keep it as a historical place."
The church cemetery also will remain, Jurek said.
Jurek said he understands that some of the families from St. Leo's are upset and may not be happy about the closing of their church. He said he knows that it doesn't mean much to some parishioners, but he prays that in time they see that God has given the two parishes an opportunity.
"You can either go, 'Boohoo, boohoo, it's all over,'" Jurek said, "or you can go, 'Thank you Lord for being with us.'"
Contact reporter Maria Hasenstab at email@example.com or 618-239-2460.