It took longer than expected, but for Friends of St. Patrick’s Church Spring Fork, the wait was worth it.
After five months, the community group has secured a lease with the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City that allows them to renovate the almost 100-year-old church and hold community events on the grounds. The deal likely saved the church, located on Highway U south of Sedalia, from demolition.
Mass was last said regularly at St. Patrick’s in 1980 and due to roofing issues, structural damage and blown-out electrical wiring from a lightning strike in June, Sacred Heart Parish, which oversees the church and adjoining cemetery, had scheduled a decommissioning ceremony in September with demolition possible in the following months.
Stanley Dillon, of Ionia, who was baptized and confirmed at St. Patrick’s, launched an effort to save the building and was joined by family members and friends. They approached Father Mark Miller, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, who postponed the decommissioning and gave the community group until the end of October to come up with a viable plan to renovate the church building. Its window of opportunity ended up being extended into February.
“The negotiations took quite a while, but that really was a good thing because we had more input between the diocese and Father Miller and Brad Copeland (buildings and properties director for the diocese)," said Diane Bockelman, who handled communications between the community group and the diocese. “We never had any disagreements. The negotiations were about how to handle (what) was a new deal for everybody. It was more of a ... thought and consequence process to see how it would benefit everyone.”
Friends of St. Patrick’s Church Spring Fork has a two-year, no-rent lease on the church and grounds that went into effect on March 1; the group is required to renovate the property to meet current state standards and must carry $1 million in liability insurance on the property.
Miller went into the talks motivated to not “squash their dreams of preserving a historic building.”
“I think the process was open and respectful,” he said. “Our big concern was whether they were able to follow through. ... We said, ‘If this what you want and you are capable of doing it, we are open to allowing you to pursue that, recognizing it will be under your authority, in your hands to bring it to be a safe place for people to enter and participate.’ ”
Dillon said the group has collected $3,000 in donations, while construction bids have come in at $35,000.
“We’ve had people want to pledge, but we told them ... to wait to see if we got a lease,” he said, adding that the electrical system and the roof are the two main areas of concern.
The property remains in the control of the diocese, and Copeland said he wants to “make sure everything is done in a safe manner.”
“It’s not too far from Jefferson City for me to come out,” he said. “When they start the renovation work, I will start going out every so often to check on how things are going, to make sure they don’t run into any big issues.”
Copeland had originally put renovation costs on the church between $250,000 and $550,000, believing the structure, which lacks ramps and restrooms, would need to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. But Bockelman learned that because of its age, the church was “grandfathered in” and such upgrades are not mandated.
Miller said the group is responsible for all costs affiliated with upkeep of the church — the renovations, utility costs, ongoing maintenance and insurance. But while the structure is still commissioned as a Catholic church, Miller stressed that there are no plans to bring regular services back.
“I heard their conviction and their passion of wanting to preserve this church that has been part of their lives and their families’ lives. I wanted to make sure they knew in the restoration and renovation, we were not going to include the idea that we were going to open it as a full-functioning church,” Miller said.
That is a bothersome point for the pastor.
“People need to recognize that churches are there for ministry,” he said. “Faith communities come together to celebrate the sacraments, but also for outreach. ... If a church exists but doesn’t have an outward mission, that is problematic. ... We’ll see how this develops and grows, see where they go from here.”
The Friends of St. Patrick Church Spring Fork is established as a 501(c)3 charitable organization, so all donations are tax-deductible. Group member Wesley Pearl said that until the initial report on the church appeared in the Democrat in September, “a lot of people didn’t realize that church was vacant.” Now people are showing interest in the effort, and he is hopeful they will make their support more tangible.
“They can take pride in seeing they helped this happen, whether it is mowing the grass or donating $10,” he said.
Bockelman praised Miller and Copeland for their positive approach throughout the process.
“It was never ‘if,’ it was always ‘when’ — that was the mindset of everyone,” she said. “A lot of people have family ties there, they’re grandchildren whose grandparents went there. We’ve gotten donations from all over the United States. Of course, we need more.”
Mabel Bockelman, Diane’s mother-in-law, has spent a lot of her life at St. Patrick’s Church.
“I was married there, my little son was buried there. ... We had a lot of good times over there, chicken suppers and ice cream socials. It was just a nice place,” she said.
“A lot of people have given us praise for doing the good work that we’ve done. That makes you feel good,” she added. “We’re trying to do the right thing to save the church like all of our families would want.”
Copeland also offered praise for the group.
“I’m just happy to see a group of people coming forward and saving their heritage,” he said.
HOW TO HELP
Send donations, payable to Friends of St. Patrick's Church Spring Fork, to:
24818 Highway V
Sedalia, MO 65301-1123
For more information, call 826-1456 or 287-3053.