by Erin Hunninghake and Joe Bollig
ATCHISON — Formidable challenges have forced the closure of Sacred Heart Church, one of four that comprised the city’s Catholic community here.
The final commemoration Mass was on Sept. 30. The archdiocesan decree of closure took effect on Oct. 1.
“Even though there is sadness today as one phase of the history of the Catholic Church in Atchison ends, we rejoice in the many blessings that have come through those who have attended church here,” said pastor Father Jeremy Heppler, OSB, at the close of the Mass.
Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann was the main celebrant and homilist. The concelebrants were Father Jeremy, Abbot James Albers, OSB, of St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, Abbot Barnabas Senecal, OSB, Father Dan Gardner, Father Roderick Giller, OSB, and Father Meinrad Miller, OSB.
Sacred Heart Church was founded almost 126 years ago to serve Irish Catholic railroad workers and families. Because of demographic changes, the church became part of St. Benedict Parish through a 2013 consolidation plan.
In recent years, three major challenges arose that threatened Sacred Heart’s sustainability. As a result, Father Jeremy proposed that the church be closed.
The first challenge was a lack of priestly personnel. According to canon law, the number of Masses a priest can celebrate on one Sunday is limited. With a lack of available priests, Father Jeremy could not guarantee a priest would always be available for Sacred Heart.
The second challenge was its infrastructure. Ceiling tiles had begun to loosen and fall, and repairs were estimated to cost more than $450,000. For a church used only once a week, the cost of repairing Sacred Heart did not make financial sense.
“This was a major factor,” said Father Jeremy. “The resources were just not there.”
The third challenge was the limited number of worshipers the church could accommodate.
“Sacred Heart could only hold about 200 people,” the pastor said. “It’s very difficult to schedule an extra priest for that small number of people.”
Following a parish-wide meeting to discuss the proposal for closure, Father Jeremy contacted Archbishop Joseph Naumann. The archbishop consulted with church representatives and the archdiocesan presbyteral council before granting approval.
With the church closed, the next tasks for Father Jeremy and the parishioners are decisions regarding the liturgical furnishings, the church and the closed Sacred Heart School.
“We have committees that will soon meet to determine what will happen,” said Father Jeremy. “Our hopes are to find good homes for [liturgical furnishings], whether used by our parish, other parishes or other church-related entities.”
Father Jeremy hopes to sell the property, but it needs to be appraised.
“One of the things we have to determine is whether it would be more painful to sell the building to someone else or knock it down . . . being completely honest with people about the repair needs [that potential buyers] would take on,” said Father Jeremy. “We don’t know what the market would be. Everything is unknown at this moment.”
The legacy of Sacred Heart Church will live on, said Father Jeremy. That legacy includes a variety store, a perpetual adoration chapel now at St. Benedict Church, a Boy Scout troop, a Knights of Columbus council and the St. Maximilian Kolbe Fraternity of Secular Franciscans.