A new home for St. Mary’s*

The Catholic Church Extension Society (CCES)

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imageThe new St. Mary's, photo courtesy of Roy Weber

By Julie Rattey

*Based on the story of Don Clements and the parish of St. Mary’s in Lamar, Missouri. Information for this feature was provided by Don Clements and CCES. Additional information was found on the websites of The Joplin Globe and KOAM TV.


It was 6 a.m. when the phone rang on February 8, 2009.  Don frowned as he put down his cup of coffee and stood to answer the phone.  Who could be calling this early on a Sunday?




“Mike?” Don’s heart beat faster. His son Mike should be delivering the paper right now. What was wrong?


“Dad, St. Mary’s is on fire.”


“What?” Don cried. A terrible vision of his home church going up in flames rose up before him. “What happened?”


“I don’t know. I have to go, Dad, but I thought you should know.” Don had hardly hung up and relayed the news to his wife, Emily, when the phone rang again. It was Junior Johnson, a fellow parishioner and volunteer firefighter, calling with the same news.


“Junior, how bad is it?” Don asked.


There was a pause.  “Don, it’s fully engulfed.”


Minutes later, Don and Emily drove the mile to the church where generations of Don’s family had been baptized, married, and buried. Emily gasped as they saw the flames licking the small building that had stood for more than 100 years.


As they joined the crowd of parishioners huddled at a safe distance, Don scanned the familiar faces beneath hoods and hats: They were marred by shock, disbelief, tears. He then looked at the faces of the volunteer firefighters battling the blaze: They were marked by sweat, grime, and grim determination.


Don put his arm around Emily’s shoulders. “The wind is blowing out of the north,” Don said. “No matter what happens to the church, they might be able to contain the fire, save the rectory.”


Emily nodded, but Don could tell that his news was small comfort as she watched the fire burn steadily through the ceiling and the front of the church. Don had to admit it wasn’t much comfort to him, either. St. Mary’s was the church where they had attended decades of Sunday Masses, and where Emily had played the organ for nearly 30 years. This was where he had served as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, handled the parish finances, mowed the lawn. This was where their children had been baptized and where Mike and his wife had had their marriage blessed. Christmas Masses, Easter Vigils, spaghetti dinners in the church basement—all of it flashed before Don’s eyes. How could something that held generations of memories be destroyed so quickly?


Gasps and groans were heard as, weakened by the relentless flames, the roof of the church began to collapse. The fire was too powerful, and spreading too quickly, for the firefighters to put out. A short time later, much of the church had been destroyed. Don tightened his grip on Emily’s shoulders. What had happened to cause such a terrible fire? And what would happen to their parish? St. Mary’s was the only Catholic church in the county. Where would they go?




Several weeks later, Don sat in their temporary Mass space—the parish hall, which, thankfully, was in a separate building from the church and had been spared from the fire. He looked around once more at the faces of his fellow parishioners. Mouths were drawn sorrowfully downward or stretched taut in grim lines. Brows were furrowed like wheelbarrow tracks. Some hands were clasped in prayer. Others seemed clenched in anger.


Don couldn’t blame his fellow parishioners. Though he, like some others, had come to forgive—“an eye for an eye” simply wasn’t his style—he knew it would take a long time for everyone in the parish to feel that way. Some, perhaps, never would. After all, how do you think kindly of someone who set fire to the place where you buried your parents and baptized your children? How do you forgive a 19-year- old kid who, for the purpose of stealing money, broke into the church and then, for an unknown reason, spread flammable liquid inside and set it all ablaze?


As Junior Johnson had said, losing the church had been like losing a member of the family. For so many parishioners, St. Mary’s was the center of their universe, and 19-year-old John Manco, who lived near St. Mary’s and eventually turned himself in to the police, was the person responsible for its loss.


Don didn’t know Manco, but he was acquainted with the boy’s uncle. Some of Don’s sons knew Manco’s father. What must the family be going through? Don wondered.


“I just don’t understand,” Emily kept saying. “Why would anyone burn down a church?”


The reality of what Manco had done was difficult to accept. It was also difficult to accept the consequences. St. Mary’s was the only Catholic church in the county, and no one wanted to break up the community among other parishes farther away. But there was no guarantee they would be able to rebuild. Lamar was a rural town of only 4,500 people. It had been hit hard by the struggling economy; at least 700 residents had lost their jobs. Among the 90 families that made up St. Mary’s, many were retired and living on fixed incomes. The cost of rebuilding—which included a small expansion — was an estimated $1.2 million. Insurance would cover about $800,000. How could they possibly raise the rest?


At the moment, though, what was foremost in everyone’s mind was not what was being asked of them financially, but what was being asked of them spiritually. All those readings about loving one’s enemy and forgiving 70 times seven were suddenly a lot more challenging when they related to John Manco. Their bishop had recommended that the parish urge leniency in Manco’s sentencing. It wasn’t an easy pill to swallow, and not everyone was willing.


Don sighed inwardly. This would take some time.




In March of 2010, Don was in the Assembly of God community center, which had been lent to St. Mary’s, thawing out catfish for a St. Mary’s Lenten fish fry.  It was a smelly job, but he was glad to do it. All around him, faces that only a few months prior had been tight and tense were now eager and excited. Parishioners were setting up tables, tying on aprons, and rolling up sleeves.  There was laughter, and teasing, and a lot of good-natured ordering around. Don smiled. This was the parish he knew and loved.


Time had brought some healing, but the parishioners’ spirits had particularly been raised by the news they had received in January. Since receiving a call from the diocese about the fire, the Catholic Church Extension Society, which had helped St. Mary’s build a parish hall in the 1970s, had been working with St. Mary’s to create an assistance plan.  In January, CCES pledged $150,000 toward rebuilding—provided that the parish could raise $90,000 in six to 12 months.


With the dream of rebuilding suddenly within reach, the parish sprang into action, sponsoring fish fries, car raffles, carnivals, chili cook- offs, and other events. The larger community, in which Catholics were a minority, rallied to help. Don was no longer surprised when strangers came up to him around town to vocalize their support, or to slip money into his hands. One man had even given him a $100 bill. Don marveled:  What had begun as a tragedy was now bringing their whole town together.


As he unloaded more fish onto trays for thawing, Don thought of John Manco. The parish was looking forward, but Manco, now in prison, was undoubtedly spending time looking back. Don could only hope that what the parish had done would make a difference in this young man’s life, and enable him to move forward too.  In September 2009, a group of parishioners had gone to John Manco’s sentencing and asked the judge for leniency. Thanks to their efforts, Manco had been sentenced to the minimum, 10 years; he might have faced more. Don reflected with gladness at what Terry Riegel, president of the parish council, had said at the sentencing: “We feel that as a faith-based community and as a Catholic church, if we don’t show compassion to him, who will?”


Don’s reverie was broken as Junior Johnson called out from across the room. “Don, how’re those fish coming along?”


Don turned to Junior with a smile. The fire was in the past.  Today, he had fish to fry



What is the Catholic Church Extension Society?

In 2010, thanks to donor contributions, Catholic Extension invested $18 million in America’s 86 “mission dioceses,” geographic regions of the country where the Church is growing and needs are great. Catholic Extension helps parishes become established and more self-sustaining; supports religious education and outreach ministries; funds the training of future lay leaders, men and women Religious, and diocesan priests and deacons; and helps to build and renovate church buildings. For more information, and to help, visit catholicextension.org or call 800- 842-7804.


Was St. Mary’s rebuilt?

In the two months following the challenge by the Catholic Church Extension Society, St. Mary’s gathered $175,000 in pledges and fundraising. Catholic Extension honored its grant of $150,000, and on December 8, 2010, St. Mary’s parishioners celebrated Mass in a church of their own for the first time in nearly two years.


Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from 23rdPublications.com.