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Holy Family facing change

ABOVE: After 125 years Holy Family Church in East Chain has stopped holding weekly mass. The parish has instead consolidated with St. John Vianney in Fairmont.

EAST CHAIN– Holy Family Catholic Church in East Chain, a long-time pillar in the community, has ceased to hold weekly mass after nearly 125 years. The parish has merged with St. John Vianney in Fairmont.

Conversations for starting a church in the area began in 1880 with the arrival of several Polish families. In 1892 nine acres of land was purchased and construction of the church began. The parish was officially organized on June 23, 1897 and placed under the patronage of the Hoy Family.

“The brick building that is there now was built in 1924-25. The old church burnt down,” explained Donna Paris, a long-time member whose ancestors were founders of the church.

Throughout those many years, countless masses, weddings, funerals and events have been held inside the church. The church has an active choir and has been active in volunteerism.

“It’s been well-maintained,” said long-time member and church trustee Mike Nowicki.

However, due to a shortage of priests in the area, it was decided to turn Holy Family into an oratory.

“There will still be weddings, funerals and special celebrations,” said Father Andrew Beerman.

As for the why of turning the church into an oratory and consolidating parishes, Father Beerman explained that back in 2013 a process began for the whole diocese. By looking at the resources they had and where the people are, they saw a demographic shift in a lot of small towns as people have moved away. The number of priests has also notably declined in the last few years.

“We have eight priests over the age of retirement still serving in our diocese,” Father Beerman said.

There are just about 52 active priests in the Winona-Rochester Dioceses, which covers the whole southern part of the state from Winona to the South Dakota border.

Holy Family used to have its own priest that lived in the house next to the church but since the 1980s Holy Family and St. John Vianney have shared a priest. There has been two masses at St. John Vianney and one at Holy Family every weekend.

Father Beerman stressed that these two parishes aren’t the only ones affected in the dioceses but that 21 parishes have merged in the process. Locally, the parishes of Saints Peter & Paul in Blue Earth and St. Mary’s in Winnebago are also merging.

There were six masses being held between the four parishes and it will now be reduced to three on a weekend.

It’s also important to note that participation at Holy Family has been strong. Nowicki said that about 80 to 100 people have been in attendance at early Sunday morning mass, though a third of them are St. John Vianney parish members who prefer the earlier service.

“It’s not attendance, it’s not financial, it’s basically a lack of priests,” Nowicki said.

Father Beerman said the Bishop needs to think about how best to serve all of the Catholics in the diocese given the resources available.

“The purpose of this study was to promote vibrant and vital parishes and focus on how can we help people grow in their faith and be more active,” Father Beerman said.

He said in the larger parishes there’s more opportunities for people to get involved besides the weekend celebration of mass. At St. John Vianney this includes retreats, bible study, adult faith formation, Society of St. Vincent de Paul and work with St. John Vianney School students.

Still, accepting change is really hard for parishioners of Holy Family.

“I’ve been going to the church for 64 years and I’m one of the young ones,” said Nowicki.

Father Beerman noted that for many people, it’s the only church they’ve ever gone to.

“It’s a tough situation for a lot of people and it will take some time to get used to. I live 100 ft. from the church and now I’ll have to drive by my church to come to this church(St. John Vianney). I’ve sat in the same pew for 64 years,” Nowicki said.

Father Beerman said there will be a process people need to go through for closure which involves prayer.

“My faith is stronger than a building,” Nowicki said.

As it’s remaining an oratory, three weddings are scheduled this year. Nowicki commented on the beautiful, straight aisle that brides love to walk down in the church. There are also 14 large statues of the Stations of the Cross inside the church and many unique stained glass windows, not to mention that it sits in front of East Chain Lake, which adds to the overall beauty of the church itself. However, whether to keep the church as on oratory is something that will need to be discussed on a yearly basis.

“Eventually they’ll have to decided what will happen to the building because there are expenses in maintaining it,” Father Beerman said.

While the last regular mass was held on May 8, a celebration is planned for later in the summer at 1p.m. on July 10. There will be a special mass that day and former members are welcome. Past priests have also been invited, as well as the Bishop.

“It will be like a typical church picnic. There will be a meal and games and entertainment by Steve Lang and Bob Petrowiak,” Paris said.

She’s putting together a history book of the church that will be be made available to parishioners at a later date.

Nowicki said, “It’s not that we’re celebrating that our church is closing, but celebrating the people that made that church and still are there.”

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