Perishing parishes, Bristol church shuttering doors for good eight years after parish closes

Mike Harms stood in the foyer of Bristol’s St. Anthony Catholic Church last week and looked into the sanctuary while describing a newer young family with kids who had recently joined.

“That’s the sad part... I just enjoyed watching the little kids serve,” he said. “My kids served too.”

While Harms grew up in that church, he said he was never a server, himself. He recalled attending weekly “release time” in the church’s basement as a high schooler and has been one of the caretakers for over 35 years. It’s special to see the kids now, he said, because for years there were no children to serve in the church during mass.

It was that apparent lack of young people, Harms said, that led to the closure of the church.

Next weekend, the last mass ever will be held at St. Anthony.

It comes eight years after the parish officially closed.

“I thought we were only going to go four or five more years after that,” Harms admitted.

St. Anthony became a “non-existing parish” in 2011, according to Father Mike Kelly. Since then, it’s been known as a chapel of ease, under the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish in Groton where Kelly is assigned. While not a part of his assignment, Kelly was given permission to continue holding mass at the Bristol church with the stipulation that should he retire, the responsibility of seeing the church properly closed before then because it would not become part of a new priest’s assignment.

Kelly plans to retire by July 1 and said holding the final service now will give him time to oversee the distribution of all the church’s belongings – both secular and sacred – as well as oversee the building’s demolition. Parishioners will take the secular items – those things given to the church as memorials will go back to the families – but the holy items will be distributed to other Catholic churches and to the Abby of the Hills in Marvin.

According to Kelly, the “implementation planning” process began in 2009. Kelly said these meetings were spurred on by an observed movement of younger people away from the rural areas, prompting parish mergers and, sometimes, closures.

“Just like your school districts merge, so goes your churches,” he said.

According to Kelly, it was “a heart-moving process we went through” to decide what to do with the church. At the time, 21 of the 37 registered family units voted in favor of tearing down the church building after it closed.

“The building is consecrated, so it will have to be destroyed,” said Mary Anne Bartell who has been a member of St. Anthony for the past 20-plus years, or ever since the Lily parish closed. “It will be a sad day for us.”

Bristol’s is the fifth rural parish to be closed since those 2009 talks began, according to Harms, following Conde, Doland, Zell and Frankfort. Those closures and mergers come from a lack of priests, Harms said. They were told the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, which is comprised of eastern South Dakota, went from 90 priests down to just 55.

“Like any church, there are just not enough priests to go around,” Bartell said. She also noted a lack of people in the rural area appears to be a cause. “There are no more people around here anymore. All the rural people are moving to the cities.”

The average mass attendance is anywhere from 12 to 30, although Kelly said at the last service there were 56 people who attended.

While the church recorded two baptisms within the past year, according to what Harms and Bartell could recall, they also said the church held two or three funerals.

Harms pointed out that Bartell said it best a few weeks back when she remarked, “You look out (at the congregation) and all you see is gray hair.”

When the church is gone, Bartell said people will have to make the decision of where they will go to church. The closest Catholic parishes to Bristol are Webster at 11 miles and Groton at 21 miles. Kelly said some people will have to exceed 30 miles of travel just to attend mass.

“It’s going to be a big hardship for the elderly to go out in the wintertime, to drive somewhere for church,” Harms observed.

With Kelly’s retirement, parishioners also worry that there will be no more Catholic mass held at the community’s only nursing home.

“Mass is important, because that’s where ... the sacraments are held,” Bartell explained.

“It’s going to be sad,” Harms said.

Harms said Kelly has been an inspiration to all Bristol parishioners, helping them learn how to persevere.

“I can’t say enough for Father Mike – he’s stuck his neck out there for us,” Harms said.

Bartell agreed.

“He goes above and beyond. I’m going to miss him,” she said.

The final mass at St. Antony will be held April 27 at 6 p.m. with a pot luck meal at 7 p.m. The service is open to the public.

According to Kelly’s records, St. Anthony was officially established in Bristol in 1885; a priest from Webster took care of the parish until 1903 when a Father Ms Kane was assigned to the parish.