After 123 years, Franciscans to leave Sacred Heart in Peoria

Photo Caption: Father Frank Jasper, OFM, provincial vicar of the Franciscan Friars of St. John the Baptist Province, gives Communion at Sacred Heart Church in downtown Peoria (seen at right) on Nov. 16.

By: By Tom Dermody

After 123 years of serving Sacred Heart Church in downtown Peoria, the Franciscan Friars of St. John the Baptist Province will withdraw from that parish as well as nearby St. Joseph Church next June.

Father Larry Zurek, OFM, pastor, and Father Luis Aponte-Merced, OFM, parochial vicar — who have guided Sacred Heart and St. Joseph since 2006 and oversaw a major renovation at Sacred Heart Church — will return to province headquarters in Cincinnati at that time to begin new duties guiding the Franciscan province’s vocation office.

The news was announced at Masses last weekend by Father Frank Jasper, OFM, provincial vicar.

“Bishop Jenky assures me, and I reassure you, that Sacred Heart is going to remain open and St. Joseph will remain open and the soup kitchen will remain open,” said Father Frank.

Coming out of the sanctuary to deliver his homily from the center aisle at the 8 a.m. Mass Sunday at Sacred Heart, Father Frank also read a letter to parishioners from Msgr. James E. Kruse, vicar general of the Diocese of Peoria.

“The bishop and diocesan priests join with the faithful in giving thanks to God for the many years of wonderful Franciscan pastoral ministry in the heart of Peoria,” wrote Msgr. Kruse. “The bishop will appoint new diocesan priests to serve as pastor and parochial vicar at the normal time diocesan assignments take place next spring.”

The Franciscans Friars of St. John the Baptist Province will continue their presence in the diocese at St. Mary Parish in Bloomington.

In his homily, Father Frank cited a decline in the numbers of priests and religious throughout the United States, saying “our Franciscans have had the same kind of experience with fewer entering, and our friars aging.”

The province’s “important ministry” of vocations promotion suffered two health setbacks in recent years. Father Don Miller, OFM, vocations director and a Peoria native, badly injured his knee during a fall last January and cannot travel. Brother Robert Lucero, OFM, associate vocations director, has had a recurrence of a brain tumor and “is now in a nursing home, his entire left side completely paralyzed,” said Father Frank.

“Our vocation office is really one of the most critical ministries in our province,” he told Sacred Heart parishioners. “It’s the future of our province.” When Father Jeff Scheeler, OFM, provincial minister, asked Father Larry and Father Luis if they would consider taking over vocations efforts, they agreed.

Father Frank urged parishioners to pray for and encourage vocations as they support the priests during the time of transition.

The letter from the diocese emphasized that “the liturgies, sacraments, devotions and other pastoral ministries including Sophia’s Kitchen” at both churches will continue after the Franciscans assume their new assignments. Sophia’s Offerings from Angels Kitchen is a volunteer ministry that gives sandwiches to hundreds of the area’s needy every day. The sandwich program, for many years based at Sacred Heart, is now located at St. Joseph Hall, 103 Richard Pryor Place.

Sacred Heart Parish, founded in 1878, was staffed for its first 24 years by Capuchin Franciscan priests and brothers. Franciscans from the Cincinnati province succeeded them in 1892, and the present church was built during the pastorate of Father Anthony Heithoff, OFM. Among the long-serving Franciscan pastors was the late Father Marne Breckensiek, OFM, who guided the parish for 24 years.

St. Joseph Parish, which traces its roots to 1852, was merged into Sacred Heart Parish last April. The church continues to host a 4 p.m. Mass on Saturdays.

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