'Vibrant' churches see no need for merger
BELLECHESTER — From a passing vehicle, you'd note some general similarities between the rural Goodhue County churches of St. Mary in Bellechester and, about 15 miles away, St. Columbkill in Belle Creek Township.
The Catholic parishes are plunked amid mile after mile of farmland, locations that might suggest problems such as dwindling memberships and financial struggles that have dogged other rural churches.
Open the doors to either one of them this past Sunday, however, and you'd have found the pews packed, with roughly 250 to 300 people attending each Mass. At each parish, longtime church members — some of whom have been attending for 70 years or more — said they're seeing unfamiliar faces as new members start attending from around the area.
It's the kind of thing those longtime church members see as a kicker to the situation they face as the two parishes, each more than 150 years old, face a merger with Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Goodhue.
"We have three vibrant parishes," said Bob Eppen, the parish council president at St. Columbkill. "Why change that?"
The churches are appealing to the Vatican this fall's merger decision by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
In the meantime, congregation members at both churches worry they'll lose a key part of their identities: Their names.
Eppen said the three parishes in the cluster will need to take on the Holy Trinity name as they merge administratively. Mention of the previous church's name may still be allowed, as St. Columbkill could take on a name such as The St. Columbkill Congregation of Holy Trinity Parish, he said.
At St. Mary, lifelong member Leo Heppelman, 83, said a name change would be difficult because the name is so wrapped up with the church's identity.
"That name to me means a lot," he said.
Whether all three churches would remain open is unclear. In a letter to the three parishes, Archbishop John C. Nienstedt said that the decision to merge does not mean that the worship site or a particular parish will be closed, adding that decisions regarding continued use of the buildings "are left to the enlarged parish community to determine."
Eppen takes a dim view of what this could mean, saying that it effectively "scapegoats" the three congregations into having to make such decisions themselves as they pool their money together into one pot and a joint church council makes funding choices.
At St. Mary, however, longtime member Ray Poncelet, 74, expressed optimism that his church would stay open and not have to change its name.
"I think we're going to be here no matter what," he said. "We'll still be here as St. Mary's."