Holy Family in Keenesburg celebrates a century

Moira Cullings

After 100 years, the tight-knit, diverse community at Holy Family Catholic Church in Keenesburg is still going strong.

“It’s a sign for the Church,” said Father Carlos Bello-Ayala, pastor of the parish for the past six years. “It shows it’s alive — even though we have all these problems, all these difficulties, persecution.”

“I see that in a rural town, still people have the desire to find God in this small church,” he said. “For me, it’s a sign that with a few people that God has in this church, we can be a big sign for those who are far away from God.”

Holy Family celebrated its 100th anniversary on June 8 with Mass celebrated by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila followed by a reception.

The parish, located in a town of just over 1,200 people, has around 65 families. Although it gone through ups and downs, its parishioners, many with deep ties to the parish, have remained faithful and worked hard to keep the parish alive.

Anita Lutz, whose family helped found the parish, has been involved in both Sacred Heart in Roggen and Holy Family (both run by the same pastor) throughout her life.

“It’s a small, welcoming church,” she said about Holy Family. “It’s a strong, faithful community.”

Lutz, who has been a member of the Altar and Rosary women’s group, appreciates Father Bello-Ayala’s efforts to bring the diverse groups of the parish and has enjoyed getting to know the Hispanic community better.

“That really made an impact on me in the last couple years,” she said. “We’ve done a few projects together, and it’s worked out really well.”

Amy Veith, President of the Pastoral Council and a member of the parish’s Altar and Rosary society, has been at Holy Family around 11 years and has also been impacted by the rich diversity at the parish.

“I have especially enjoyed getting to know some of the families from our Spanish Mass, and I think we are pretty successful at bringing all of our parishioners together and embracing the wide diversity our little parish has,” she said.

Veith explained that the small rural community loves and takes care of each other.

“We are tiny but mighty,” she said.

Father Bello-Ayala remembers one particular instance when he experienced the concern of his parishioners.

“We had a very bad storm,” he said, and the meeting he was supposed to attend with parishioners was canceled.

“People were calling and texting me, saying, ‘Father, is everything ok?’

“People are always connected [here], taking care of each other,” he said.

Although Father Bello-Ayala’s six-year assignment at Holy Family recently ended, he was instrumental up until the end in bringing his own parish community together, as well as reaching out to the local community, particularly through the Neocatechumenal Way.

“We are visiting houses two by two every year in order to call people, those who are fallen away Catholics,” he said. “Our mission is to invite.”

He believes the parish’s 100th anniversary is a message to Keenesburg that “we are a Catholic Church that is alive, that is vibrant, and we are welcoming those who are in need of God.”

The turnout at the anniversary Mass also gives him hope for the parish’s future.

“To see almost 200 people in one Mass, that was amazing,” he said. “Everybody was happy sharing together and celebrating that 100th anniversary.”

COMING UP: Why stay in the Church?

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There are many people who have either left the Church or are currently considering leaving because of the scandals of recent decades. We have felt pain and righteous anger at our leaders and have suffered scandal from their betrayal. For some, the grand jury reports and lack of accountability for bishops have been the last straw. It’s hard to blame people for feeling this way, but we have to ask with Peter, “to whom, Lord, shall we go?” (John 6:68).

Significantly, this question comes after many disciples walked out on Jesus for his teaching on the Eucharist, and it is the Eucharist that should be at the center of any response to the crisis. Peter answers his own question: “you have the words of everlasting life” (John 6:68). The Church is Jesus’ own body in the world, and we are members of his mystical body, given eternal life by consuming his own flesh at Mass. Without the Eucharist, Jesus’ presence in the flesh, the very heart of the Church, where would we be?

Bishop Robert Barron echoes Peter’s question in a recent pamphlet-style book, with over a million copies in print, Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis (Word on Fire, 2019). He turns to the Bible and Church history to look for perspective on the crisis. Because of the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church, the betrayal of some of our priests and bishops takes on greater significance. They act in persona Christi at Mass, offering the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross to the Father, and we depend on them for our sacramental life.

Fortunately, the validity of the sacraments does not depend upon the sinlessness of priests, but rather the holiness of God. Barron points out, however, that priests will not get off easy, given the extremely harsh words that Jesus offers to those who lead children astray: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me;  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,  it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!” (Mt 18:7-9). Barron also references the punishment of Eli, in 1 Samuel 2-4, who as priest and judge of Israel watched his own sons, who were also priests, abuse the people. Barron argues that this scene gives us the best example of God’s retribution for allowing abuse to happen and not correcting it.

Barron also looks at the tumultuous story of Church history for context on the current crisis. Although the Church is the mystical body of Christ, he references St. Paul assertion that we bear our treasure in earthen vessels, as evidenced by the human weakness of Christians throughout history. In fact, this weakness manifests the Lord’s grace guiding and preserving the Church in spite of us. Barron quotes Belloc that a proof of the Church’s divine foundation “might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight” (43). Heresies, sinful popes, and sexual perversity have not fundamentally destroyed the Lord’s work, even if they have turned many people away. God has promised to remain with his Church and his providence will guide us especially through dark moments.

The crisis challenges us and raises the question of why we are Catholic. Most of us have been born Catholic and may take our faith for granted as something we’ve inherited from our parents. We may view belonging to the Church like membership in a voluntary organization. Rather, our life as members of Christ’s Body is a gift from God that changes our identity and unites us to God and our fellow Christians. As we experience challenges to faith, it is an opportunity to embrace this identity even more strongly — not as something that depends upon myself or anyone else in the Church, but on God. We go to Church to honor and thank him and to receive his grace, not to be a part of a human organization.

The Church is a family, called together by God, but, like any family, we experience pain from our own and each other’s sinfulness. As family, we can’t give up on each other, but have to “stay and fight” as Barron exhorts us, helping each other to be faithful to the mission that Jesus gave us: to love one another as he has loved us and to share the Good News of his salvation.

Featured Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash