By GLENN RUTHERFORD
St. Frances of Rome Church, nestled in the heart of the Clifton neighborhood, has in its 125-year history emerged as the Archdiocese of Louisville’s “little parish that could.”
There was a time, not so many years ago, when the parish’s very existence was in doubt — at least in the minds of some.
“We weren’t very big for a few years there,” said Margaret Bidwell, a mother of ten who joined the parish in 1957 when she was expecting her seventh child. “We had a child who was blind, so we moved here to be closer to the (Kentucky) School for the Blind and at that time the parish school was doing pretty well. There were at least 200 students; probably more.”
Hard times befell the parish in the late 1980s and early 1990s — but since then, St. Frances of Rome has evolved into as “vital and welcoming a parish” as there is in the entire archdiocese, Bidwell said.
On Sunday, Sept. 23, a crowd large enough to bring out extra seating celebrated the parish’s 125th anniversary. Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz led the celebratory Mass, which was concelebrated by Father B. J. Breen, the parish’s current pastor, and former pastor’s — Fathers Dale Cieslik and John G. “Gerry” Eifler. Passionist Father John Schork was also at the Mass.
“Nine of my children went to school here,” Margaret Bidwell
noted, “and even when there weren’t a lot of people attending Mass, there seemed to me to always be a lot of children here. Today, of course, this parish is as vibrant as it’s ever been — the people are wonderful and I cannot imagine going anywhere else to worship.”
Sister of Charity of Nazareth Carmelita Dunn, who today is pastoral associate at the parish on the corner of Payne and Clifton streets, served as the St. Frances of Rome School principal from 1967 to 1973, then returned in 1990 as pastoral associate. She, too, has been impressed over the years by the warmth and welcoming nature of the parish’s people.
“There is a lot of vibrancy here now,” she said before Mass began on Sunday. “We have about 475 households here now,” but there was no question that the parish hit “a real rough stretch” in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“Father (John G.) Gerry Eifler and others really worked to turn things around,” Sister Dunn said.
Father Eifler and others helped the parish “to become a more accepting kind of place,” said Anne McMahon, a parishioner for the past quarter-century who helped organized the Sept. 23 celebration.
“People in this parish have a great deal of opportunity to serve in many different ministries,” she noted, “and Father (B. J.) Breen has continued to expand our ministries and education programs and has built upon the parish’s welcoming tradition.”
St. Frances of Rome has become a part of many lives over the years, McMahon added, noting with special enthusiasm the increase in young families who’ve become part of the parish recently. “The fact that so many people feel at home here is very comforting,” she said.
In his homily at the anniversary Mass, Archbishop Kurtz noted that the parish’s welcoming tradition would serve it well as the church begins to emphasize the New Evangelization.
“You have a great opportunity here, in the unity of the church, to use the wonderful way in which you, as people of God, come together to welcome people into your parish,” he said. “You’re right here on the corner where life seems to be invigorating … the Clifton Center has become the area’s center of culture, of life, of the neighborhood’s history, and the people of the parish deserve a word of praise for
The Clifton Center was created in 1994 and once housed the parish school, which was closed in 1975. The building was renovated and remodeled, and today serves as a cultural center with a restored theater and offices. It has become, as the archbishop noted, a neighborhood centerpiece.
The archbishop also noted that some of the stained glass windows in the church came from the old St. Mary Church downtown, which had been heavily damaged in the flood of 1937. Those windows, when the lights of the church are on at night, “send a kind of golden glow into the neighborhood,” he said. “They seem to glow with the joy of the people who are inside, receiving the comfort of the Lord. They speak, in a sense, of who we are as a people” who can guide others to the love of Christ.
The archbishop also recited a poem from Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who wrote that:
“The fruit of silence is prayer; the fruit of prayer is faith; the fruit of faith is love; the fruit of love is service; and the fruit of service is peace,” he said. “What a great mission statement that is for a parish named for St. Frances of Rome,” someone, he noted who grew close to God in prayer.