Annunciation, Eagle Township to merge with Leonore parish

Photo Caption: Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church is located along Route 18 in Eagle Township, just west of Streator.

By: By Tom Dermody

EAGLE TOWNSHIP — Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish, whose church steeple has lifted the cross more than 100 feet above surrounding farm fields west of Streator for nearly 130 years, will merge into Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Leonore at the start of 2014.

The decision is the latest parish reorganization to follow the diocese-wide evaluation and consultative process “Growing in Faith Together.”

While Sts. Peter and Paul will be the primary parish church, Annunciation Church will continue to see limited use after Jan. 1, 2014, according to Father Gary Blake, who serves as pastor of the Leonore and Eagle Township faith communities as well as Holy Family Parish in Oglesby.

Sts. Peter and Paul embraces 57 households, while Annunciation has about 30 registered families. The two churches are six miles apart, and have shared a common pastor since 1977.

A decree signed on Nov. 8 by Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, said the decision to merge followed wide consultation. It was unanimously approved by the diocese’s Presbyteral Council on Nov. 5.

The decree, printed in the parishes’ bulletins on Nov. 17, lists several advantages of the merger, including greater vibrancy for worship and strengthened catechetics. Financial obligations will be met more sufficiently as duplications of ministry and administration are reduced.

Father Blake acknowledged the sadness that Annunciation parishioners are feeling as the transition approaches.

“It’s the parish many were baptized in, grew up in, and many were married there,” he told The Catholic Post.

Among those fitting that description is longtime Annunciation parishioner Mary Wiesbrock, 89, who since 1997 has served as church sacristan. Her family has been in the region since the parish was founded in 1869 to serve Irish settlers.

“It’s been a strong parish,” said Wiesbrock, who is a 2003 recipient of the Diocese of Peoria’s Pere Marquette Award for outstanding service that included six decades of singing in the parish choir, leadership in the Altar and Rosary Society, and service as lector, liturgy coordinator and extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, including to the homebound. “A lot of staunch parishioners have worked very hard over the years to keep it going.”

She recalled the “wonderful priests — good, kind, and religious” who served the rural faith community, as well as the many gatherings through the years including Christmas programs, salad luncheons, and rummage sales.

A relative newcomer to the parish, Robb Caputo, said he and his wife Mary Jean chose Annunciation because of its rural setting and the hospitality of its members when they moved to the area in 1990.

The church, visible for miles to traffic on Route 18, has only the adjoining rectory as company amidst the farm fields. Caputo says it pulls visitors “out of their hectic, noisy and busy lives” and into a “tranquil, quiet and peaceful” setting.

Caputo, now in formation to become a permanent deacon for the diocese, also noted the charm and strong faith of Father Charles McCarthy, CSSp, who guided both the Eagle Township and Leonore faith communities from 1988 until his move to senior status late this summer.

Father McCarthy’s 25-year pastorate is one of several long tenures by parish leaders. Father Michael Egan, the first resident pastor, spent 43 years here. Serving from 1882 to 1923, Father Egan is credited with building the church, rectory, a school, a convent, and even a generating plant on six acres of land donated by the Prendergast brothers.

Another long-serving pastor was Father William Wozniak, who guided Annunciation from 1931 to 1964. Father John Gaughran and Father James Swaner followed with about a decade of service each, with Father Swaner overseeing the building of a catechetical center and parish hall across the highway on the site of the former school. That building was sold in recent years.

Other notable aspects of parish history include fires in the parish school (1902) and the original rectory (1916). During the latter Father Egan narrowly escaped death in rescuing church records. The former St. Mary Church in the nearby village of Kangley was a mission of Annunciation until it closed in 1987.

Father Blake said every effort will be made to utilize statues, sacred vessels, and other objects contributed through the years to Annunciation Church at Sts. Peter and Paul. He noted that among the distinctions of Annunciation is that it has what is reportedly the first marble altar consecrated in the diocese. It is now the high altar.

The parish will celebrate Christmas as usual, including with a Nativity scene housed in a stable built by member Edward Comisky in the early 1900s. The last day as a parish for Annunciation will be marked by a solemn Mass on Wednesday, Jan. 1, the feast of Mary, Mother of God.

After that, said Father Blake, plans call for the church to be available for weddings, funerals, a Mass on the feast of the Annunciation, and perhaps occasional liturgies on Saturday evening. The rectory will be sold.

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