‘Painful decision’: Franciscans will leave St. Mary, Bloomington after 135 years

Father Ric Schneider, OFM, who has served as pastor of St. Mary Parish in Bloomington for 23 years, receives a hug from a parishioner following the 9 a.m. Mass on Jan. 24. (The Catholic Post/Tom Dermody)

BLOOMINGTON — After 135 years of pastoral leadership at St. Mary Parish in Bloomington, the Franciscan Friars of St. John the Baptist Province will return care of the faith community to the Diocese of Peoria in June.

The announcement was made “with a very heavy heart” at all parish Masses the weekend of Jan. 23-24 by Father Jeff Scheeler, OFM, provincial minister.

He read a letter from Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, assuring the nearly 1,300 households of St. Mary’s that diocesan priests will be appointed to serve the parish and that “the liturgies, sacraments, devotions and other pastoral ministries will continue.”

When the transfer takes place June 5, it will mark the first time since 1878 that the Cincinnati-based Franciscans will not have a presence in the Diocese of Peoria. As late as the 1970s, there were 22 friars serving in 10 parishes.

Last June, the Franciscans withdrew from Sacred Heart Parish in downtown Peoria.

“The reality is we as a group are aging and we are getting fewer in number as time goes on,” said Father Jeff at St. Mary’s 9 a.m. Mass last Sunday. He pointed out that from 2005 to 2015, 61 friars of the province have died — the most recent being Father Gregg Petri, OFM, a native son of St. Mary Parish who had served as parochial vicar and director of Hispanic ministry here since 2003. Father Gregg died on Christmas Day at the age of 83.

Father Jeff Scheeler, OFM, provincial minister of the Franciscan Friars of St. John the Baptist Province, addresses members of St. Mary Parish, Bloomington, on Jan. 24. (The Catholic Post/Tom Dermody)

Father Jeff Scheeler, OFM, provincial minister of the Franciscan Friars of St. John the Baptist Province, addresses members of St. Mary Parish, Bloomington, on Jan. 24. (The Catholic Post/Tom Dermody)

During that same 10-year period, noted Father Jeff, eight friars made final commitments and one was ordained a priest.

“Do the math,” said Father Jeff. “Eight people can’t do what 61 did. We’ve had to make the very difficult and painful decision that it’s time for us to return the care of St. Mary Parish to the Diocese of Peoria.”

“IT’S GOING TO BE TOUGH LEAVING”

Father Ric Schneider, OFM, who has served as pastor of St. Mary since 1993, said the province’s decision was made known to Bishop Jenky last August when Father Gregg’s health declined to the point he could no longer minister, especially to the parish’s growing Hispanic community.

“It’s going to be tough leaving,” acknowledged Father Ric in a Jan. 21 interview with The Catholic Post, a day after he informed parish and school leadership of the decision. “You get so involved in parishioners’ lives.”

“I told them things are going to go on,” continued Father Ric, 83. “There will be an adjustment period, of course.”

(Related story: Father Ric says love fuels the “action on Jackson” at St. Mary Parish)

Father Ric plans to return to Cincinnati in June and reside in the community’s house where he began his ministry in 1960 as a teacher at Roger Bacon High School. While he has asked for retirement status, “when you’re a religious, you don’t really retire, you go to a lesser job.” Father Ric will help out at St. Clement Parish and other parishes in the region and frequently visit the high school two blocks away.

Joining him will be Brother Kevin Duckson, OFM, who has served St. Mary’s in various capacities for nearly two decades. Father Neri Greskoviak, OFM, a Minonk native who came to the parish as an assistant in 2014 and will turn 80 in March, will also be leaving.

“They will be well taken care of,” assured Father Jeff.

PRESENCE FOR 135 YEARS

The hugs and tears shared with the Franciscans after Masses showed the affection parishioners have for them.

“We hate to see them go,” said Rosalie Phalen, a parishioner for more than 50 years, after embracing Father Ric. “I understand it, but it’s difficult. It’s life. You have to accept things you don’t like.”

St. Mary Church, Bloomington

St. Mary Church, Bloomington

St. Mary Parish was founded by mostly German Catholics on Bloomington’s west side in 1867. Fourteen years later, the Franciscans from Cincinnati came to the parish at the invitation of Bishop John Lancaster Spalding. Father Pius Neihaus, OFM, was the first Franciscan pastor. Father Hilary Hoelscher, OFM, was pastor when the present church facing Jackson Street was dedicated in 1887.

More than 75 Franciscan friars staffed the parish over the next 129 years as St. Mary’s grew and adjusted to changing demographics, always maintaining the Franciscan charisms of friendliness and a welcoming spirit.

“So many friars have invested themselves here so completely for 135 years,” said Father Jeff. “I’d like to thank you for the privilege we Franciscans have had . . .  in sharing your lives, your families, all the experiences of baptisms and weddings and funerals. That’s a wonderful gift we friars cherish.”

Acknowledging the sadness of the announcement, Father Jeff quoted from the liturgy’s first reading from the Book of Nehemiah: “Do not let sadness overcome today because rejoicing in the Lord will be our strength.”

“That’s the good news always,” said Father Jeff. “This is such a talented and gifted community. You will continue to live the mission of Jesus, to carry it forward to our day and time.”

He closed by asking parishioners “to do whatever you can to promote vocations to ministry in the church,” with special prayers for the Franciscan friars.

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