by Jessica Langdon
LILLIS — The final tolling of the bell. The last hymn sung. The last Mass celebrated at St. Joseph Church here.
It was a time for goodbye, and to remember this parish that would now be closed.
Louise Reust remembers.
“It was the seventh of June, and it was hot — it was hot.”
So hot, she got sick that day during her first Communion. Her mother hurried her to the pump outside and splashed water in her face.
Reust, who was born in 1916, remembers many better days here, too. Like the day her own daughter, Millie Donahue, was baptized.
Donahue played the organ at St. Joseph for 30 years. The last time was July 6, when she and Reust joined fellow parishioners for a Mass of thanksgiving. Most were keenly aware they were creating their final memories of St. Joseph, which served the Lillis area since 1865.
Parishioner Robert Bergmann was overcome with emotion reading the petition as he prayed for St. Joseph parishioners.
It was their last time together as a congregation.
A new reality
More than one parishioner didn’t think the reality would really hit them until it was time to go to Mass again and they couldn’t come here.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s sunk in,” said 19-year-old Rebecca Kohman. She went to the last Mass with her parents, Frank and Ann Kohman, and her sister Samantha, 21.
Both girls were baptized here. Their first Communion was here. Confirmation, too.
“Wish we could have gotten married here,” Samantha said.
Father Pat Sullivan, parochial administrator of St. Joseph, began his homily telling the congregation about the funerals he has prepared for, each sad and difficult in its own way.
“But I would have to say that this one is perhaps the most difficult,” he said.
“That’s right, I said this one,” he continued. “It would be foolish for us not to see this event for what it really is — or at least what it feels like: We’re suffering a loss.”
Then he turned to the topic of baptism.
The gifts we receive at baptism can’t be undone and are ours forever, he said. Like those, the memories of life at St. Joseph belong to the parishioners forever.
“No one can change or undo the memories created here,” Father Sullivan said. “For well over 100 years, multitudes of baptisms have occurred in these waters, thus initiating people into the Christian life. Many have, like the prodigal son, come back to Jesus in the sacrament of reconciliation. Thousands of holy Communions have been consecrated and received by the faithful, giving spiritual nourishment for their weekly journey. And multitudes have been married and buried here.”
Sacristan Mary Seiwald and her husband Paul were married here 51 years ago. She followed in her mother’s footsteps as sacristan, a calling that held both joy and sadness for her.
“I miss her, but I was happy to do it for them,” she said.
The final Mass wasn’t an easy one.
History of faith
This green, hilly area was originally called Irish Creek. Early Masses were celebrated in log cabin homes.
Father William Fitzgerald settled here in 1865 and became the first resident pastor.
Catholic settlers poured what money they could into a church building, a small structure of native wood. A dry goods box became the first altar.
A cemetery was added in 1866 and expanded in 1893.
Early parishioners found the roads hard to travel and wanted a church near the cemetery. Land was deeded in 1901. In 1903, the frame church was moved to this new site across from the cemetery.
Three years later, a new railroad was under construction between Topeka and Marysville, and a town — named Lillis, likely in honor of the bishop at the time — was thriving nearby. The congregation was split on whether to build the church in Lillis itself or at the current site. They decided to keep it where it was. The basement and foundation for the new church were finished in 1912, but hard times delayed completion until 1916.
This region has seen churches close before. Even four decades ago, some thought this day might come.
The Eastern Kansas Register — forerunner of The Leaven — ran an article in February 1970 about the faith that remained in this part of Kansas, despite the closure of St. Patrick Parish in Coal Creek. Changes also meant no resident priest at St. Joseph in Lillis. A declining Catholic population and a shortage of priests were factors then.
John Sullivan, who was 74 at the time, talked about the Lillis parish becoming a mission of Annunciation Parish in nearby Frankfort.
“Naturally, we’d rather have had it continue as a parish — we’ll miss having our own priest right here with us, but that’s the way it had to be,” the article quoted the parishioner. “So now we’re hoping St. Joseph’s can go on indefinitely as a mission, although that’s probably being too optimistic, too. If they close our church, we would just ‘move in’ over at Annunciation, in Frankfort, I guess.”
A decree of suppression by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann explains the pastoral planning process and provides some background for the decision this year to close St. Joseph. The recommendations for the Nemaha-Marshall Pastoral Region in 2008 suggested closure under certain configurations, particularly when it came to the number of priests. In the letter, Archbishop Naumann urged local pastors to help St. Joseph parishioners as they turn to new church homes.
Keeping the faith
Father Sullivan hoped the foundation of faith this congregation built here will stay with them.
He told the congregation about words of wisdom Seiwald shared at the last Altar Society dinner.
“Rocks and mortar pass away, but our memories never will,” she said. “It’s time to move on.”
Father Sullivan asked the parishioners to pray and keep those words in mind.
“Brothers and sisters, God created us for two simple reasons,” he said. “To give him honor and glory, and to help each other get to heaven. That reality stays the same regardless of what’s going on around us.”
Eight priests concelebrated the final Mass at St. Joseph. Many had served as its pastor during the past five decades. Some had other ties here. Others who couldn’t make it wanted to be here. Several shared stories and memories at the end of Mass.
Father Carl Dekat arrived at St. Joseph Parish in November 1957. The country church reminded him of the St. Joseph Parish he had known growing up. This was his first parish as a pastor.
“I always felt a close connection to St. Joseph Parish in Lillis because it was my first parish,” he said.
The priests’ memories met with laughter and applause. After Mass, there were hugs and a few tears.
Reust was one of the first babies baptized in the new church building back in 1916. This church has been part of her whole life.
That won’t be the case for little Easton Caffrey. He wasn’t quite two weeks old when he was baptized here — just three days before the closing Mass.
“It’s kind of sad, really,” his dad, Nathan Caffrey, said. “I don’t know how else to say it. I’ve been going to this church all my life.”
He always thought his children would grow up here, too. Baptisms of his kids — Easton and 8-year-old Aiden — are memories he’ll cherish.
His wife, Casa Caffrey, joined the church last Easter.
“We kind of brought them both into the church,” Nathan said, as Casa cuddled tiny Easton on the church steps.
Father Sullivan further encouraged the parishioners to keep their focus on Jesus, no matter what happens around them.
“When I first had to inform you of this sad news,” he said, “I told you we had a great opportunity to grow in holiness. There was also the opportunity to let the devil get the best of us.
“Because of your love and good character, I still believe that we will grow in holiness and that you will bring greater life to those communities you choose to join.”
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