Thanks flow at final Mass in Pesotum

Photo Caption: About 70 people gathered in St. Joseph’s Church in Pesotum for a final Mass on March 19.

By: By Jennifer Willems

PESOTUM — As a kid, Marvin Kocher served Mass every day at St. Joseph’s Church in Pesotum, making the three-mile round trip on his bicycle.

Now a resident of Springfield, Kocher has a longer distance to travel but he was more than willing to make the trip in order to be at the final Mass celebrated in the church that meant so much to him and his family. He was accompanied by his father, Henry, who raised nine sons with his wife, Josephine, in the southern Champaign County community.

“He told me about this and I had to be here for the last Mass,” Marvin told The Catholic Post. “I’d been to too many not to be here for the last one.”

Msgr. James Ramer, pastor of St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s in Pesotum and St. Thomas in Philo, brought the faith community together to share memories and give thanks on March 19, the Solemnity of St. Joseph. Joining him was Father Joseph Dondanville, pastor of St. Patrick’s in Tolono and chaplain at The High School of Saint Thomas More in Champaign.

Those who attended the liturgy were invited to bring lawn chairs to sit on, since all of the liturgical furnishings and pews had been removed and given new life in churches and chapels around the diocese. Masses at St. Joseph’s were suspended about four years ago.

The sale of the church property to Shannon Witheft was scheduled to be finalized on April 1. He was present at the Mass and was introduced to the assembly by Msgr. Ramer before the final hymn was sung.

While Joseph is known as the husband of Mary, the foster father of Jesus, the protector of the Holy Family and the patron saint of the universal church, he is a “quiet saint,” according to Msgr. Ramer.

“Nothing is ever remembered being said by Joseph as recorded in sacred Scripture. Joseph never speaks,” he told the 70 people sitting before him. “Perhaps the early church wanted only his faithful example to be remembered — not what he said.”

Msgr. Ramer said the title that seems to capture him best is St. Joseph the Worker.

“It’s an appropriate title for this parish, founded by people who worked hard and people who worked the land — people who knew what a good full day’s work was all about, as did Joseph,” he said. “People who were loyal to their families, as was Joseph. People who were strong in their faith, as was Joseph. That is what I would say is the heritage of this parish.”

Founded in 1904 by German farmers, the first church was a Gothic-style structure that was completed and dedicated in 1905. Eight years later the church and rectory were destroyed by a fire.

Construction on a combined church and school started almost immediately and the new church was dedicated by Bishop Edmund Dunne on Oct. 28, 1914.

The school, which served the community until 1967, was staffed by the Sisters of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate from Joliet. Among them were women who were born and raised in Pesotum.

In 1992, Bishop John J. Myers designated St. Joseph’s as the center for the Eastern Area Cursillo community. It also was a retreat center for several groups, including TEC, Youth for Christ and St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

For much of its history, St. Joseph’s and its sister parish, St. Mary’s in Pesotum, have been served by one priest. Msgr. Ramer, who was pastor from 1991 to 1992, returned to southern Champaign County in 2008.

“It’s a small town. The church was part of your life, the center part of it,” said Sharon Heinz, who was the third generation of her family to belong to the parish. “And the ice cream socials — oh my!”

A 1962 graduate of the school, Heinz married her husband, Dennis, at St. Joseph’s in 1971 and they celebrated the baptisms of their three children there. They are now members of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Decatur.

“Good memories” are what brought her back for the final Mass at St. Joseph’s and she said she had met two of her classmates as she strolled through the church, school and rectory that day.

“It was a truly marvelous place,” Margaret Hawkins told The Post as she sat in a lawn chair next to her longtime friend, Pat Zwilling, before Mass started. Lifelong parishioners, both were married at St. Joseph’s and raised their families in the community.

“It was just like a big family. We all knew each other,” said Hawkins. “We don’t see each other now. We’re always happy to see each other and catch up on what we’re doing.”

“All of our memories are here,” Zwilling said simply.

When prompted by Msgr. Ramer during Mass, others remembered all the children who filled the church and school with laughter and life, people who were received into the church, and even “lickings” received for various misdeeds.

As she was reading the prayers of the faithful, Heather Campbell Baird became tearful when remembering “all those who were baptized here, made their first holy Communion here, received forgiveness of sin in reconciliation, who were confirmed here, who were anointed in the sacrament of the sick, who were married here, and who were buried from this church.” Hers was the last marriage celebrated at St. Joseph’s in January 2007.

A prayer was also offered “in thanksgiving and gratitude for all those who worked to found this parish, who labored in the Lord’s vineyard here — the priests, sisters and lay people — who faithfully served here and called St. Joseph their spiritual home.”

He honored their tears, but Msgr. Ramer reminded them that “this is only a building and the church is flesh and blood” as he thanked God for “the many graces received here in this building.”

Marvin Kocher said his family was one of those that had been richly blessed as they served as ushers, lectors, altar servers, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion and religious education teachers. “If a lay person could do it, we were involved.”

A sale of items from the school and rectory preceded the Mass, but the Kochers didn’t find anything to take away with them.

“We don’t need a lot because it’s all here,” Marvin said as he pointed to his head.

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