Emotions high as Franciscans end 123 years at Sacred Heart, Peoria

Photo Caption: Vicki Donald embraces Father Larry Zurek, OFM, as he and Father Luis Aponte-Merced, OFM, greet well-wishers after celebrating their final Sunday Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Peoria on June 7.

By: By Tom Dermody

With tearful farewells, expressions and symbols of gratitude, and a promise that “every time you celebrate the Eucharist, we will be with you,” the Franciscan Friars of St. John the Baptist Province have returned the care of Sacred Heart Parish in downtown Peoria to the Diocese of Peoria.

The transfer — ending 123 years of Franciscan staffing of the parish — took place during an emotional 10 a.m. Sunday Mass on June 7 attended by an overflow crowd at the church, 504 Fulton St.

“We are so grateful to all of you who came here today,” said Father Larry Zurek, OFM, pastor, in remarks at the close of Mass. “(You came) not to say ‘goodbye,’ but to join us in thanking the Lord for the blessings of these past 123 years that we Franciscans have been so privileged to minister among you.”

Yet the redness in Father Larry’s eyes, the break in his voice, the emotion shown in earlier remarks by Father Luis Aponte-Merced, OFM, parochial vicar, and the embraces the two shared with tearful parishioners moments later outside church attested that this was no easy parting.

“They’ve been very dear,” said longtime parishioner Vicki Donald through tears after giving hugs to both Father Larry, who served as pastor for 11 years, and Father Luis, parochial vicar for nine years.

They were the final in a line of 132 Franciscan friars to serve the parish stretching back to 1892, when members of the Cincinnati-based province succeeded Capuchin priests and brothers who had guided Sacred Heart since its founding in 1878.

“My sadness is not that I am leaving,” said Father Larry, who with Father Luis will help guide vocation efforts for the Franciscan province, “but that there are no friars to follow us.”

The transition was necessary because of a declining number of friars, according to Father Mark Soehner, OFM, who was present to represent Father Jeff Scheeler, OFM, provincial minister.

“We don’t have a deep bench, to use a baseball term,” said Father Mark in his homily.

The Mass took place on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, and Father Mark said that because of that sacrament of unity the Franciscans will always be “blood brothers” with members of Sacred Heart Parish.

“Yes, we are leaving, but every time you celebrate this Eucharist, we will be with you, reunited in a bond so tight it can never be broken,” said Father Mark.

Also concelebrating the Mass was Msgr. Stanley Deptula, who on June 10 will become the first diocesan priest to serve as pastor of Sacred Heart. He will be assisted by a team of parochial vicars including Father Don Henderson, Father Thomas Gibson, and newly ordained Father Alex Millar. The four priests will also care for nearby St. Mary’s Cathedral and St. Bernard parishes.

Msgr. Deptula said he was also attending the Mass in his role as vice-chancellor of the Diocese of Peoria to convey “the deep and personal thanks” of Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, for the “heroic and generous ministry of these good Franciscans and the 100-plus others that have helped generations of Catholics” through sacramental and outreach ministry at Sacred Heart.

Among those outreaches is the sandwich program now known as “Sophia’s Offerings from Angels Kitchen,” which serves hundreds of the area’s hungry each Monday through Friday. Msgr. Deptula assured the program will continue.

The nearly two-hour liturgy was attended by representatives of several area Franciscan communities and included Franciscan ceremonial traditions, including:

— The blessing of the church’s San Damiano Cross, a replica of the painted representation of the Crucified Christ that St. Francis was praying before outside of Assisi when he heard God tell him to “repair my church.” The Franciscan tradition is to make a gift of such a cross to a parish they must leave, but Sacred Heart had installed one in a side entry chapel in recent years.

— The singing of a special hymn to the Blessed Virgin Mary sung by friars at special gatherings. Joining Father Larry, Father Luis, and Father Mark in the sanctuary after Communion to sing the hymn in Latin were three visiting Franciscan brothers from the province — Brother Vincent Delorenzo, Brother Norbert Bertram, and Brother Marcel Groth.

— The blessing and distribution of prayer cards that listed the names of all Franciscan friars who have served Sacred Heart. Two beloved recent friars, Father Marne Breckensiek, OFM — who guided Sacred Heart for 23 years before retiring because of ill health in 2004, and Father Clair Bourdereaux, OFM, for whom the parish hall is named — were repeatedly remembered by name during the liturgy.

Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis read a proclamation recognizing the Franciscan Friars Minor for “exemplary service, guidance, and prayers for the Catholic faithful of our community.”

“There will be a void in our hearts for the Franciscans who have served our Lord and our community so well for more than 100 years,” said Ardis.

Through tears — “I can’t help it, I’m Puerto Rican” — Father Luis thanked the parish for the challenges and opportunities they gave him.

Father Larry recalled the major remodeling and renovation of the church that began shortly after he was named pastor in 2004. Because of its beauty and location next to hotels and the Peoria Civic Center in downtown Peoria, Sacred Heart Church is a popular choice for weddings.

“This beautiful church in which we worship today, and in which brides love to get married, is not our legacy,” said Father Larry. “It is yours. I thank you for your confidence.”

After his remarks, Father Larry turned over the keys of the parish to Msgr. Deptula and the two embraced. A reception followed Mass in the neighboring Hotel Pere Marquette.

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