BLOOMINGTON — St. Mary's Parish's 150-year outreach to the community may be illustrated with two recent developments that began badly.
The first was the probable closure of Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen — a hot lunch for an average of 60 people in need served every Tuesday and Thursday at St. Mary's Church, 527 W. Jackson St.
When Clare House closed in November 2015, that threatened to end Loaves and Fishes, a service of Clare House. Instead, St. Mary's and five other Bloomington-Normal area Catholic parishes took over sponsorship of the soup kitchen, which continues to thrive.
The second was the vandalism of St. Mary's School, 603 W. Jackson St., by four juveniles in July 2016. While the extent of the vandalism nearly delayed the start of school the following month, St. Mary's allowed the juveniles to do their community service sentence at the school, where they help with maintenance work.
While the juveniles need to be trained and overseen, "the relationships that have developed in that community service atmosphere have gone beyond serving time," said Father Greg Nelson, pastor of St. Mary's Parish, which includes the church and school.
"Everyone involved has grown to care for each other," he said.
Those examples of community outreach are why St. Mary's Parish, on Bloomington's west side, continues to thrive after 150 years. St. Mary's celebrates its sesquicentennial today with a Mass by Bishop Daniel Jenky at Central Catholic High School and with other events later this fall.
"We try to establish a safe and welcoming place for parishioners and non-parishioners alike — where people can grow in their faith" and where their other needs, such as for food and clothing, can be met as well, Nelson said.
"That's the reputation of St. Mary's," he said. "People know that anyone can come here to get support, spiritually and otherwise. That attracts parishioners. They see it as fulfilling not just for them but for the neighborhood and the larger community."
Another service of St. Mary's is its long-standing "back door ministry" for the poor, Nelson said.
"Every day, people come to our back door needing help spiritually and materially," Nelson said.
"Our role is to support the community in being a helpful, giving, loving and accepting community," said Jamie Hartrich, principal of St. Mary's School, which has 139 students.
When Lynda Rettick first entered St. Mary's 17 years ago "we felt welcomed. People talked to us. It's very friendly."
Rettick joined the parish, served as a member of the parish council, school office manager and advancement director, and is a communion minister and chairwoman of the sesquicentennial committee.
"We enjoy being together. It's happiness," said Carol Burroughs, parishioner and communion minister who is a secular Franciscan, meaning she tries to live a life of peace, service and prayer.
"I like the back-door ministry and Loaves and Fishes," Rettick said. "Ministry at St. Mary's is done in a down-to-earth way. St. Mary's doesn't do things and say 'Hey, look at us.' It just fills a need."
One is addressing spiritual and social needs of the community's Hispanic population. A parish that was established in 1867 largely to serve German-American Catholic families now has a Hispanic membership that accounts for 25 percent of the parish's 1,103 households, Nelson said.
St. Mary's supports Hispanic families with a Mass in Spanish at 1 p.m. each Sunday and a Hispanic Advisory Committee, which has existed since 1983 to assist Spanish speakers, said Jose R. Montenegro, a parishioner since 1972 who was ordained a permanent deacon in 2007.
"It's a small parish but hard-working and everyone is welcome," Montenegro said.
"The parish has thrived because the parishioners are so active in the ministries of outreach and are generous with their time and money," Nelson said.
"We have amazing, giving parishioners who create that family feeling every Sunday, which allows the parish to flourish," Hartrich said.
The parish also has an active adult education program. "We have several faith and scripture study groups happening at any one time," Nelson said. "That interest in study is an important part of life here."
There was concern among some parishioners when Franciscan friars, who had been staffing the parish since 1881, pulled out last year with the retirement of popular longtime pastor, Father Ric Schneider, as well as Father Neri Greskoviak and Brother Kevin Duckson. There were no Franciscans available to replace them so the Diocese of Peoria assigned Nelson and another diocesan priest, Father Joe Baker.
"The secular Franciscans remain a vital part of the parish life and our arms and hearts remain open to those who are in need spiritually and materially," Nelson said. "Those are not just Franciscan missions but missions of the larger Church."
"The Franciscan roots are deep here," Burroughs said. "We are so blessed with the priests assigned here. They have Franciscan hearts."
"We miss the friars, of course," Hartrich said. "But Father Greg and Father Joe are amazing and allow us to continue our Franciscan heritage."
Nelson is at the school frequently and joined fourth-graders — including Hailey Chapman, 9, of Gridley, and Zarai Salinas, 9, of Bloomington — for lunch on Aug. 29.
What would they tell someone who was thinking about coming to St. Mary's Church?
"I would tell them they would make a lot of friends and it would be a perfect idea," Hailey said.
"St. Mary's is a young parish," Montenegro said. "We have a lot of young families coming in. That's what attracts a lot of people here."
"This is a place to share our faith and love for God," Hartrich said. "Hopefully, we're that stopping place for everyone."