by Kara Hansen
ROSSVILLE — When Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe,” he might have had Don and Kathleen Damon in mind.
When the Great Bend couple donated $1.1 million to St. Stanislaus Church’s building fund in Rossville, the two had never set foot on parish grounds.
Fortunately, the Damons did make it to the church when the announcement about the donation was made because the parish reaction was priceless.
“There were no more than one to two sets of dry eyes in church that day,” said the couple’s nephew, Kevin Bittner.
“Most people believed building a new church would never happen in their lifetime,” he said. “Now, in six months, we hope to be breaking ground.”
So how did a couple from Great Bend ever come to make the dreams of this Rossville parish come true?
In November 2009, Don, a retired truck driver, purchased a $1 lottery ticket in a Dillons grocery store.
It turned out to be the best financial investment he ever made: It was the winning ticket for a $96 million jackpot.
“After winning,” said Bittner, “they asked what they could do for us.”
Bittner, his wife Angie, and their five daughters had long been active parishioners at St. Stanislaus. He is a member of the building committee, where parish members for several years had been discussing the possibility of building a new — and much needed — church building. But the price tag of the project, roughly $2 million, seemed to put it out of reach.
“We told them we would love to see the building project move forward,” said Bittner. “They had never even been to our church or seen it, but they knew I was on the building committee and knew we were working hard to get the church built.”
It didn’t take the Damons long to respond. Incidentally, Kathleen is Catholic; Don is not.
Kathleen grabbed her checkbook and wrote out a check immediately — to the tune of $100,000.
The parish was thrilled at the donation, said Bittner.
“That much money was worth a long time of people putting in what they could afford,” he said.
Only a few weeks later, while catch- ing up at lunch, the Damons asked Bittner how the building plans were going.
The building committee was brainstorming, Bittner told them, on ways to use the Damons’ donation to get the funds up to half the projected cost. (Fifty percent cash in hand is the magic number in terms of getting permission to build from the archdiocese.)
Thirty minutes after returning to work from lunch that day, Bittner received a call from Don’s lawyer.
“What did you say to your uncle?” the lawyer asked Bittner.
The Damons, the lawyer told him, wanted to contribute to the parish building fund again — this time with a gift of $1 million.
“They have used their funds to help others in a lot of ways, but they really wanted to do something that meant something to a lot of people,” said Bittner.
And mean a lot, it did.
“We thought a $100,000 donation was awesome,” said Shelly Buhler, a parish member and building committee chair. “Then when we got word we were given a million dollars — well, it took awhile to sink in.”
The funds could not have come at a better time. The current 100-year-old church building is sorely in need of repairs, some of which the structure might not withstand. And yet until their miraculous windfall, there seemed no alternative but to try to keep repairing the unrepairable.
“The building is in need of roof repair, new heating and air conditioning, and it has structural concerns,” explained Deidre Michael, capital campaign chair along with her husband Harold.
“During hard winds,” confirmed Buhler, “we’re often holding our breath the 100-year-old steeple doesn’t come flying off.”
Buhler said the size and physical condition of St. Stanislaus Church was identified as the second biggest challenge in the pastoral planning process for the St. Marys Region, with weekend Masses being regularly well over capacity.
“If you’re not there by 8:30 for 9 o’clock Sunday morning Mass, your family will be sitting in different spots around church or standing in the back,” said Buhler.
Many sacraments, such as first Communions and weddings, cannot even be held in the current church. A new structure would also be able to accommodate elderly and disabled parish members in ways the current structure cannot.
“To have these members of our parish back is really a priority for us,” said Buhler.
Plans have been made for a new church structure in a Roman basilica style. Every effort has been made to salvage parts of the old church to use in the new one.
“We are planning to use the stained- glass windows from the current church,” said Michael. “There is a lot of history there and we want to try and use the things we have, especially because they often mean something to a family.”
A groundbreaking is tentatively scheduled for spring 2011. Plans also include building four additional classrooms onto the existing parish hall to provide additional space for religious education.
“We’re hoping to break ground within six months, pending archdiocesan approval,” said Buhler. “At that point, we would need to have all our funds pledged or have the project costs come down.”
Even with the generosity of the Damons, St. Stanislaus parishioners have work left to do to ensure their new church can be built. The current capital campaign goal is set at $600,000. Currently $330,000 has been pledged from 100 of the 175 parish families.
“The donation is definitely inspiring us to do our part to finish the fundraising and make sure this happens,” said Buhler.
But the challenges are obvious, given the current economic climate. Still, St. Stanislaus Parish has seen what the generosity of one couple can do. And it has made a difference in more ways than one.
“There was another person in the community who milled flour for companies and asked if we would be able to use some,” said Father Bruce Ansems, pastor of St. Stanislaus.
“He donated 200 five-pound bags of flour, which we announced was available after Mass and asked for a freewill offering from the people. Those who could not afford it but needed some were welcome to it, and we passed on what was unused to a food bank.”
Father Ansems said the unique donation has inspired parishioners to think more creatively about what they can offer to assist with fundraising efforts.
“It has helped people realize there are many ways they can support the church. We do need monetary support to complete the project, but there are other ways that help, too,” said Father Ansems.
Father Ansems said the building committee is also actively seeking corporate sponsorships and planning a number of fundraisers.
“For me as a priest, it’s an incredible experience to see them constructing and forming something that will last for generations,” he said.
“Parishioners will get to see their kids and grandkids baptized and married here,” he added. “It’s exciting, because needing to build a new church is a sign of vitality and new growth.”