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St. Anthony celebrates final Mass...

It started out as a day like any routine Sunday in a small-town church. The piano was playing, neighbors were talking, children were running up and down the aisles, the priest was getting things ready for the service and nobody was sitting in the front row.

1/16/18 (Tue)

It started out as a day like any routine Sunday in a small-town church. The piano was playing, neighbors were talking, children were running up and down the aisles, the priest was getting things ready for the service and nobody was sitting in the front row.

But this day, Jan. 14, 2018, would be anything but routine. It was an historical day in the community of Donnybrook because it was the final Mass celebrated at the Roman Catholic Church of St. Anthony.

People began to gather an hour before the 11 a.m., service and by the time parishioner Don Gregoire rang the bell, more than 100 people had assembled in the church that for the past three years has been struggling to maintain a congregation.

Many were regular worshippers, many were those who grew up in the church, moved away and started their own families, some were guests and still others were working journalists there to capture history in the making.

It was a bittersweet day in Donnybrook as Bishop David Kagan of the Diocese of Bismarck stated in his opening remarks.

Despite losing their church after Sunday Mass, Kagan said the Lord gives us what we need. Kagan said he was encouraged by the will of the Donnybrook parishioners to keep the faith.

“Records take us back to the turn of the last century,” Kagan said. “The hallmark has and always will be that faith that took root and produced fruit. All of you are living proof of that. Change is not always what we want, but has occurred.”

Those records can be traced back to 1898 when a missionary priest from Harvey began scheduling Masses every fourth Sunday of the month.

Since that time, generations of Donnybrook-area residents have attended the church. In fact, there were numerous sets of three generations in the church Sunday together to celebrate the closing Mass together.

Some of those families sat in the very same pews they always had because as one parishioner put it, they wanted to relive the past if only for an hour and they wanted to savor the memory forever.

Perhaps they will. Bishop Kagan chose his words carefully, designing his Mass not to dwell on the closure of the church, but to celebrate the parishioners from the past and those who turned out one last time to witness history.

“People of Donnybrook have kept the faith,” Kagan said. “It was a seed of wheat in the beginning, and it produced fruit.”

Kagan asked everyone to ask God to be their strength and the hope through the transition of the closure and choosing and attending a new church.

“Of course, there are times when things change,” Kagan said. “What didn’t change? The faith!”

He added an example of that faith was in 1898 when the bishop at the Diocese of Fargo sent a priest here to begin organizing a Catholic church that two years later would become the Roman Catholic Church of St. Anthony, a church that would serve the community for 117 years.

“On this day we are sad, certainly,” Kagan said. “But this is also a day of great thanksgiving. The memories are wonderful and they continue to live in the faith.”

The congregation sang numerous hymns accompanied by the piano and sometimes guitar in the choir balcony. Several parishioners read passages from the Bible and the Rev. Joseph Chipson, who has served St. Anthony as its priest, gave communion with the bishop and led a table prayer for a luncheon following the service.

Perhaps the church bulletin said it best.

“It is never easy to see a church close, but you can find peace in knowing that St. Anthony’s Catholic Church has been a place where people have been welcomed and where you have tried to your best to take care of the people in the community. You will hold on to a lifetime of special memories that include sacramental events, and programs of joy and celebration.”

“You will always care deeply about the church where you grew up, but the days ahead, you will go your separate ways to other churches. All of you will find a road that God gives yo to follow and whatever church you decide to settle into, may you find peace, many friendships and an abundance of blessings in your new places of Catholic worship. May God’s graces be upon you this day and always.

There are several Catholic churches in the area. St. Anthony’s has been affiliated with St. Agnes in Kenmare including sharing Chipson, the parish priest that also includes Bowbells. Kenmare is 16 miles from Donnybrook.

Others include Foxholm, 16 miles and Stanley and Berthold, each 27 miles.

St. Anthony church board members discuss historic day

Four of the board members of the Roman Catholic Church of St. Anthony were all in agreement that the church could no longer hold on citing changing demographics.

“Look across the countryside, there’s not a lot of farms anymore,” Don Gregoire said. “For more than 100 years we’ve been proud of this church, but 117 years is a long time.”

Gregoire, who has been on the church council for the past 20 years, called the closure a “bittersweet deal,” as the group began seeing concerns about six years ago.

“This church started with such meager amounts,” Gregoire said. “Father Anthony Wagner was the key to the church here in 1936. Think about it, it was the depression of the ‘30s and people had nothing but the shirts on their backs.”

The church began after the Diocese of Fargo saw a need, it grew and made it through those dark times that has come to be known through history as The Great Depression.

In more recent years, it’s been a declining population that has struck a lot of small communities across North Dakota. This time, the decision was made to save the memories as good ones.

“To sustain a church this long in Donnybrook is remarkable,” Gregoire said. “It’s a piece of history. I was carried into this church and my parents carried out. To see it in disrepair would be terribly sad.”

Gregoire noted the diocese will do the right thing. It may not make everyone happy, but it will be the right thing to do.

Sonia Mulally, the pubic information officer for the Diocese of Bismarck, said all items of religious significance will be removed from the church, taken back to the diocese and either stored or issued to other Catholic churches.

Mulally said the building will be destroyed, although she didn’t provide a time line for that to happen.

According to board member Mary Lou Knutson, the congregation has been slowly shrinking for the past 40 years.

“When I first started going in the early ‘70s, the church was full,” she said. “It’s been declining for some time.”

In an interview several days before the final Mass, Knutson said the decision to close was really beginning to hit parishioners.

“It has been coming for a while,” she said. “Now, we have to decide where we go.”

Knutson pointed out the parish has had many good priests and too many things to mention have been done. As a result, everyone will always have those memories.

“Otherwise, it will be a celebration, but not the kind we want,” she said. “We belong in this church and it will be an adjustment. We just have to put it in God’s hands.”

Lawrence Goettle is another longtime parishioner and board member. He said the closure was unfortunate, but had to be done because of low membership.

“It’s sad to see it go,” he said. “My parents and grandparents were members of this parish. I moved back here in 1983 and have been a member since. I was baptized here, my kids attended and my wife Nancy has been a pianist a number of years.”

Before Sunday, Goettle said he was expecting to see more than the normal congregation, which sometimes was down to five and six people. Sunday’s attendance was more than 100.

“We just can’t run a church that way,” he said. “When I was growing up, we were a close farming community. We had seven kids who grew up in the church. Now, you grow up, get jobs and go.”

According to Goettle, the bottom line is the board could no longer afford maintenance which was making it difficult on everyone involved. The church continued slipping into the red.

And like Mulally, Goettle doesn’t have a time line regarding the destruction of the church.

The parish hall, on Main Street in Donnybrook, however, is expected to be sold. The 1959 building is completely functional and could accommodate any number of events or businesses.

Dave Miller, also a board member, said it was a very special Mass to have Bishop David Kagan in attendance and to celebrate Mass.

And, like many others, Miller wants to keep those fond memories of St. Anthony. He addressed everyone at the end of the service.

“We want to thank all of you for coming to celebrate with us,” he said. “Today is very special.” Read EVERY WORD on EVERY PAGE of The Kenmare News by subscribing--online or in print!