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Columbia Missourian

Catholic growth in Columbia prompts reflection on the future

By Madalyne Bird
December 16, 2013 | 4:43 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Monsignor Michael Flanagan has been the pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church for 23 years. During that time, the Ireland native has noticed not only that Columbia has grown in population but so has his congregation.

In the past year, Our Lady of Lourdes has grown by about 100 households. Even after a new church and sanctuary were built in 1999 to accommodate growth, the increase in congregation size is noticeable, Flanagan said.

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The noticeable growth in the both the Columbia and Catholic community has contributed to issues of overcrowding for the three local parishes — Our Lady of Lourdes, Sacred Heart Catholic Church and St. Thomas More Newman Center — as well as Our Lady of Lourdes Interparish School, formerly known as Columbia Catholic School.

In November, members from the Diocese of Jefferson City met with parishioners in five listening sessions to talk about whether they would be willing to support the addition of a new parish, a new primary school or both. A new Catholic high school, Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School, opened in fall 2011 after a $12 million fundraising campaign.

Space versus households

The need appears to be there.

According to the United States Census Bureau, as of 2012, Columbia's total population is at 113,225. That includes 4,054 Catholic households, said Sister Kathleen Wegman, chancellor of the Diocese of Jefferson City. A household can range anywhere from one to five or more people.

Every year, parishes are required to turn in a list of registered parishioners at their church to their respective diocese. The diocese aggregates all the information into a "Rome Report," which is then sent to the Vatican.

Reports turned in to the Diocese of Jefferson City show that from 2002 to 2012, the population of Columbia increased by 28 percent. 

In those 10 years, the number of parishioners at the three Columbia Catholic parishes has grown by 16 percent.

The documents the diocese received indicate that all three churches have more parishioners than seating space in the church. They show:

The report does not include Catholics who are not registered with a parish, Wegman said.

Wegman said the growth in the number of Catholics in the area could be people moving to the area for employment reasons, mostly at MU or the hospitals.

Flanagan said that Columbia, in particular the Catholic community, is "very transient." He thinks this is largely due to MU — people come and go. Still, the number of Catholics continues to increase in the community.

Flanagan said that as a general rule when a church reaches about 80 percent of its capacity, it must think about the addition of another church.

"Right now (Our Lady of Lourdes) is at about 80 percent capacity," he said, referring to the number of parishioners who are currently registered as members.

Flanagan said that though the church is supposed to be growing and inviting, downsizing might not be a bad idea.

"Sometimes communities are less personal when they get too large," he said. "Ideally we should be at about 1,000 members. A new church will take people away from us because they will probably have to set up boundary lines. It could take half of the congregation."

A public forum

Because of the rising need for more space in the community, this fall members of the diocese met with members of the three Catholic parishes in five listening sessions to talk about the community’s growth.

In the listening sessions, the diocese searched for feedback about whether the parishioners would support the addition of a new parish, a new school for kindergarten through eighth grade or both. Currently, Our Lady of Lourdes is the only Catholic K-8 school in Columbia.

The school at 817 Bernadette Drive has more than 600 students. Not including students who are are on a waiting list to get into kindergarten, about 50 students are on a waiting list to attend the school. It already has begun putting names on the waiting list for kindergarten for the 2016-17 school year.

For students on the Our Lady of Lourdes waiting list, precedence is given to Catholic students who have a sibling at the school, then to Catholic students, then finally to non-Catholic students.

"The waiting list at Our Lady of Lourdes typically drops off after kindergarten to third grade," Wegman said. "By the time fourth grade rolls around and (families) haven’t been admitted, people begin to lose hope."

Flanagan said the addition of a Catholic school is becoming more and more necessary because of the long waiting list.

"There is a demand in the community for more school space," he said. "We have eight trailers, and we need to get rid of them. We need to downsize the school to get to about 400 students, so that it is a more comfortable learning environment for the classrooms."

Wegman, however, was not concerned about people experiencing fundraising campaign fatigue from Tolton when it came to asking parishioners if they would support a new church.

"People in the pew knew that Tolton has debt that needs to be paid off," Wegman said. "Any movement forward needs to include that reality." 

Foundations of faith

Kathleen Trauth, an MU associate professor in civil and environmental engineering and a member of the advisory council at Tolton, helped with the capital campaign to build the only Catholic high school in Columbia.

Trauth, who has been a member of the Newman Center for 14 years, said a number of phases were gone through to build Tolton. The biggest was asking questions of the community.

"Should we be opening a new school?" Trauth said. "Is the community open to the idea? Could we raise the finances to begin to go through a capital campaign? What would the school be like? What are the sorts of programs that we can offer? What should the name be? How do we identify ourselves?"

Ultimately, she said, the community decides these things.

Trauth and her husband attended Catholic school from kindergarten through high school. Because of this, they continued the tradition for their two children. Their oldest child attended Helias High School in Jefferson City, and the younger one is a junior at Tolton.

"We found that (Catholic education) was a good foundation all the way around, and we wanted to share that with our children," Trauth said. "It has proved to be a good decision. The faith-based education and a fully functional high school has been successful all around."

Trauth said she thinks that for most people who send their children to Catholic school, it is a faith-based decision.

"I think that there are people who are not Catholic who want the environment of a small school and small community for their child," she said. "It may not be an easy decision because you would have to pay tuition — you would need to feel pretty strongly about it."

Flanagan said the possible addition of a new parish could have a financial effect on Our Lady of Lourdes.

"There would be an economic impact on the school because the church supports the school," Flanagan said. "It could take some adjustment. ... It might make it more stressful economically, but in the long run, it would work out."

The information gathered in the listening sessions will be discussed by a committee that will present its recommendation to Bishop John Gaydos, who oversees the Diocese of Jefferson City. Gaydos will then make a decision on whether a new school or parish or both will be pursued.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.