Monsignor Jack McEvilly, who has spent most of his five-decade priesthood serving the residents of Belleville, said the city's rich Catholic history has been shaped by merging cultures.
And he thinks Belleville Catholics will have to continue efforts to get along, as parishes combine and share resources.
McEvilly, the pastor of Our Lady Queen of Peace in west Belleville and former vicar general and moderator of the curia for the Belleville Diocese, said shifting populations from East St. Louis helped Belleville build eight Catholic parishes.
At one time, East St. Louis had 12 Catholic parishes. Each parish was based on a different nationality, including Polish, Irish, German and Austrian.
Today, only one national Catholic parish remains in East St. Louis: Immaculate Conception Church is a Lithuanian parish. St. Augustine of Hippo Catholic Church also remains in East St. Louis, but it is not associated with a nationality.
All those different nationalities previously lived in their own neighborhoods, with their own parishes, their own bakeries and their own services.
When residents moved to Belleville, parishioners from competing East St. Louis parishes had to learn how to get along. Each group of people compromised and merged customs and expectations to form a Catholic church, school and community.
"I think that was a marvelous thing," McEvilly said. "If we're going to continue to grow, we're going to have to learn to live together."
That's a message that will apply to the Diocese of Belleville as parishes prepare to share resources and pastors, and potentially close their doors. But it also applies to the city of Belleville as a whole.
"It's going to have to happen as a city," he said. "It's going to have to happen as a church, but it has to happen as a city first."
Our Lady of Queen of Peace started in 1955 with weekday Mass in the basement of a home at 5923 North Belt West.
It grew until parishioners had their own church and school -- which boasted 500 children at one point. Now, there are about 225 children at the school.
During growth in the diocese, when a church hit 1,000 families, it split and a second parish was built.
"As people moved down Main Street, they added parishes," McEvilly said.
Before he was known as "Father Jack," McEvilly was born and raised in East St. Louis. He moved with his family to Memphis during his high school years. After that he decided to enter the seminary.
He was ordained in 1964 and came back to Belleville in 1965. He spent two years assigned to the St. Peter's Cathedral. Almost immediately, he began teaching music at Althoff Catholic High School, which had opened in 1964.
In 1983, when McEvilly was in his 40s, he was assigned to be the pastor of Our Lady Queen of Peace. Now, most diocesan priests receive new assignments every six years, but McEvilly has served the same parish for more than three decades.
McEvilly has married couples, baptized their children and presided over other sacraments, such as First Communion and Confirmation. Now, those same children he baptized have married and ask McEvilly to preside over the baptisms of their children.
"You feel like a grandpa," he said.
Dec. 16 will mark the 50th anniversary of McEvilly's ordination in the priesthood.
Competition between cultures and rivalries between parishes caused difficulties during Belleville's earlier days.
McEvilly grew up hearing stories about his grandmother Alice Dunne, who as a girl moved to Belleville about 1890 from the mining area near Ironton, Mo. She lived where the fairgrounds are now.
She went to St. Luke Roman Catholic Church, because that was the English-speaking school, McEvilly said.
In the East End of Belleville, "Everything was in German."
Dunne had red hair and assumed the German-speaking children at St. Peter's were making fun of her, McEvilly said.
In 1965, when the family attempted to move Dunne into a nursing home at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, she refused. The same German-speaking children from St. Peter's, now senior citizens, were living at the nursing home. And Dunne didn't want them to make fun of her, McEvilly said.
Another story that McEvilly had learned during his long time in Belleville was about the early days of St. Luke's parish when parishioners were saving money to build a bigger church.
However, some people were nervous that St. Luke's would build a bigger church than St. Peter's.
So the first or second bishop of Belleville, either Bishop John Janssen or Bishop Henry Althoff, landlocked St. Luke's, preventing the church from adding more parishioners.
That dividing line created a new parish: In 1926, St. Teresa of the Child Jesus Parish formed.
REPORTS OF ABUSE
A dark part of Belleville's history surfaced in the 1990s when several accusations of decades-old sexual abuse by priests on minors came to light.
"Abuse is abuse," McEvilly said.
A lot of incidents reported were from the 1970s and 1980s. McEvilly said after the Second Vatican Council, which brought significant changes to the Catholic Church, there was a new vision of priesthood and some priests misused a new sense of freedom.
He called the abuse "inappropriate" and "boundary crossing."
Allegations of sexual abuse prompted investigations and resulted in 15 priests and one deacon removed from active ministry in the Diocese of Belleville.
McEvilly said the biggest challenge was trying to bring healing not only to victims of abuse, but to entire congregations, to the entire diocese. The church offers counseling to anyone who needs it, he said.
"What can we do to bring healing?" he asked. "What do you do to counsel an entire community?"
Although the church expanded rapidly in Belleville in the past, now it is contracting.
When parishes were built, McEvilly said that church-going families attended Mass every weekend and most people in Belleville walked to church. Neither is the case any more.
Recently, a memorial Mass at Our Lady Queen of Peace was held in honor of Pam Buescher, a young mother who died from cancer. The church was packed with friends and family and community members who wanted to pay their respects to Pam and offer support to her family.
It was an example of a church full of people gathered for a common purpose.
"This is what Mass is supposed to be about," McEvilly said.
But most Sundays the churches in Belleville have empty pews: "I think it discourages people from coming," he said.
He recalled a time several decades ago when there were no youth sports events on Sunday mornings, because families would be at church. Your friends would be at church. Their parents were at church. That's where families were on Sunday mornings.
"The church is no longer the center of the family activities," he said.
In 2011, the Most Rev. Edward Braxton, bishop of the Belleville Diocese, introduced the Pastoral Plan for Parish Restructuring and Renewal as a way to consolidate resources in the diocese. With just 69 diocesan priests in parish ministry and 117 parishes, changes needed to be made.
Last year, parish partnerships were announced that merged two or more parishes together and encouraged them to share resources.
Our Lady Queen of Peace is partnered with Blessed Sacrament. Those parishes recently announced plans to accommodate a time when one pastor will serve both churches, both schools, both parishes.
That time will be soon.
McEvilly is scheduled to retire next year.
For years, Catholics have prayed and encouraged men to enter the priesthood, but the number of vocations continue to decline.
McEvilly made a pact with parishioners that he would delay retirement an extra year for every young man from Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady Queen of Peace who joins the priesthood. But no new young men have done so.
The Pastoral Plan for Parish Restructuring and Renewal aims to set up the Diocese of Belleville for the future, a time with fewer priests and potentially fewer parishes.
McEvilly said Belleville, a city of about 40,000, could stand to have fewer than eight Catholic parishes.
O'Fallon, with about 20,000 residents, is doing well with two strong parishes: St. Clare of Assisi and St. Nicholas, McEvilly said.
By those standards, he thinks Belleville would benefit greater from four "healthy" parishes.
"If we were doing this all over again," McEvilly said, "we would not have eight parishes."
Contact reporter Maria Hasenstab at email@example.com or 618-239-2460.