‘Distinguished’ Rock Island pastor always ‘a big fan of Catholic education’

Msgr. Mark Merdian, pastor of St. Pius X in Rock Island, shows students from Jordan Catholic School what can be found in a sacristy. "As a priest, you're always teaching," said the Distinguished Pastor of the Year. (Provided photo)

ROCK ISLAND — Most Wednesday afternoons you can find Msgr. Mark Merdian at Jordan Catholic School, where he teaches religion. He had the seventh-graders before the Christmas break, and is working with the eighth-graders this semester.

It’s not really an option for him.

“Ever since I’ve become a pastor, I’ve made a commitment to teach in the school,” he told The Catholic Post. “What I noticed was when I taught the class on a regular basis I got to know the kids on a real deep level, not only personally but spiritually.”

That goes for their brothers and sisters, as well as their parents.

“They begin to see me in a totally different light as a priest. They saw me as a human person and not just as their priest on Sunday because I would either be in the gym with them or in the classroom joking with them, hearing about their stories and their life and associating with them,” he said.

For his many years of guidance and support for Catholic education in general and the Catholic schools he has served in particular, Msgr. Merdian has been named the Distinguished Pastor of the Year by the Office of Catholic Schools. He will be honored at a Mass and luncheon on May 13, along with Dr. Noreen Dillon of St. Mark School in Peoria, Distinguished Principal of the Year, and Jim Taber of Central Catholic High School in Bloomington, Distinguished Teacher of the Year.

Msgr. Merdian said he was “quite excited and honored” by the recognition, noting “I do make Catholic education an important part of the parish ministry and a priority.”

STICKING TO THE MISSION

Now the pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Rock Island, Msgr. Merdian is the canonical pastor of Jordan Catholic School. As a regional school, Jordan Catholic also draws students from St. Mary and Sacred Heart in Rock Island, led by Father Luke Spannagel, and St. Ambrose in Milan and St. Patrick in Andalusia, led by Father Charles Klamut.

“We’re not there only for the basic elements of reading, writing and arithmetic, but most importantly we’re a Catholic school. That’s why our doors remain open and that’s why people support it. We teach the faith of Jesus Christ. It’s as simple as that.” – Msgr. Mark Merdian

Father Spannagel and Father Klamut, as well as Father Jeremy Freehill, parochial vicar of St. Pius X, also teach in the school.

During his 26 years of priestly ministry, Msgr. Merdian has also been the pastor of St. Mary Parish and School in Metamora and St. Matthew Parish and School in Champaign. From 2012 until he was assigned to St. Pius X in 2014, he served as president of Notre Dame High School in Peoria.

“I’m a big fan of Catholic education and I constantly promote that it is a Catholic school,” he told The Post. “We’re not there only for the basic elements of reading, writing and arithmetic, but most importantly we’re a Catholic school. That’s why our doors remain open and that’s why people support it. We teach the faith of Jesus Christ. It’s as simple as that.”

Msgr. Merdian said he works closely with Jacob Smithers, principal, and the faculty and staff to strengthen the Catholic identity of Jordan Catholic. That includes offering faith formation sessions for them once a month so they continue to grow in faith, too.

In working with the students, “I like to be creative. I use videos, I use lectures, I use PowerPoint, I use music, I use stories,” he said. “I use all kinds of media and teaching principles to get the message across.”

He covers a whole host of subjects, from saints, liturgical seasons and evangelization, to how to stay close to the faith. Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen was the topic of recent lessons because Msgr. Merdian wanted to foster in them an awareness of the El Paso native.

WALKING THE TALK

When it comes to continuing education, Msgr. Merdian practices what he preaches.

In 2014, he was given permission by Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, to pursue a license in sacred theology through Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. It required five weeks of intensive summer courses and then online courses each year for four years. He focused on the New Evangelization.

He received his degree in 2019 and has since adapted his thesis for publication as a book, “The Renewal of Catholic Health Care: Formation in Christ.” It is now available on Kindle and in print at amazon.com.

As the episcopal vicar for health care for the Diocese of Peoria, Msgr. Merdian said he felt the need for more credibility in speaking to health care leaders about formation in Christ through the New Evangelization since he wasn’t a clinician himself.

“Advanced education broadens and deepens your understanding of God’s amazing goodness in your own life and the world around you,” he said.

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