Catholic community in Eskridge gives its closed church to the community
by James Taylor
ESKRIDGE — Generosity has been a hallmark of St. John Vianney Church here since its inception, and its official closing in 2004 hasn’t changed that. On June 28, in fact, parishioners proved the charity of the Catholics of Eskridge larger than any building, and their living faith far from spent. On that day at an open house held in the former St. John Vianney hall, Father John Riley, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in St. Marys, officially donated the church building for use by another organization as a community center.
Father Riley turned over possession of the church building — still officially owned by its parishioners — to Sandra Williams, chairperson of the Gateway to the Flint Hills Coalition PRIDE Boosters, or Coalition PRIDE, with a ceremonial handing over of the keys. The organization is part of the statewide PRIDE program — a citizen-based approach to improve the quality of life in Kansas communities — and coordinated by Kansas State University, Manhattan.
A lively Saturday morning crowd of former parishioners, townspeople and area guests was present for the presentation, some willing to talk about the bittersweet tone to the occasion. “It is a glad and sad occasion for us,” said Benetta Foster, longtime parishioner and Eskridge resident, her gray eyes briefly filling with tears. But she quickly mustered a smile and added that she hoped that turning it into a community center would benefit all involved.
The sentiments she expressed — both pain at the loss of the church and pleasure at the new use it would be put to — were repeated many times throughout the day. Even the first speaker on the program, Sandra Williams of Coalition PRIDE, touched on it immediately.
“Having the church gone is hard. This is a bittersweet occasion,” she said, “but I want to thank everyone who has made this a glad occasion. It has truly been a grass-roots effort to maintain this congregation and community.” Father Riley, in his remarks, spoke of the many who would benefit from St. John Vianney parishioners’ sacrifice.
“We hate to see a church closed; it’s not a happy day,” he said. “But as Christians, we are a sacrificing people, as Christ gave his life for us. This is like the people of Eskridge — to open this community center is a sacrificial giving, offering the property to the community to make sure this keeps going for many years, that the many Masses, weddings, baptisms and funerals here will not be forgotten in this passage from parish to community center.” After Father Riley handed the keys to Williams amid hearty applause, she announced that no time was being wasted in fulfilling the center’s mission of community service.
“We are working to get a grant to convert the basement to a storm shelter for the community, and also planning a day-care center. Please let us know what services you think of for your community — we are wide open to ideas.”