Volunteers gather Jan. 15 to assemble sack lunches at Holy Family Parish in Omaha. Pictured are Tom and Judy Quest (foreground), members of St. Cecilia Parish in Omaha, and Lynda Morton of Salem Baptist Church in Omaha. The lunch ministry, and other ministries for the poor and homeless, will go on at their current location after Holy Family is merged with another east Omaha parish, St. Frances Cabrini. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

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Holy Family faces merger, but ministries to poor will continue

Over the years, the number of parishioners at Holy Family Parish in north downtown Omaha has dwindled.

It now stands at about 40, compelling its merger with another parish on the east side of the city, St. Frances Cabrini, the archdiocese announced Jan. 12.

Despite the low membership, Holy Family’s commitment to the poor has never waned, Archbishop George J. Lucas and other archdiocese leaders have said, and its much-needed ministries for the less fortunate will continue.

On April 19 Holy Family’s remnant parishioners will celebrate their last Mass together in the parish’s 137-year-old church.

But Holy Family’s name – and the efforts of dozens of volunteers – will live on in its ministry of serving the poor and homeless, with the added support of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Omaha and St. Frances Cabrini.

Parishioners received news of the merger during a meeting after the 10 a.m. Mass on Jan. 12. About 20 people attended the meeting, said Deacon Al Aulner, pastoral coordinator for Holy Family, which hasn’t had a pastor for more than 20 years.

Many of those at the meeting have been with the parish since the 1960s and ’70s.

The news wasn’t unexpected, but it was still painful, Deacon Aulner said.

Holy Family, one of Omaha’s oldest parishes, was established in 1876. Its school closed in the 1960s as the neighborhood transitioned into an industrial area. Nearly all of its current members commute from other areas of town.

The late Deacon Ralph Hueser served as pastoral coordinator for much of the past 20 years. Deacon Aulner replaced him in that job in 2014.

The parish has had a rotation of priests – including some retired archdiocesan priests and some from the Society of Jesus and the Columban Fathers – to offer Masses.

Membership has declined 30 to 40 percent in the last five years, Deacon Aulner said, and that decline continues to accelerate as parishioners age.

Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor for the archdiocese, said the merger of Holy Family Parish will be difficult for its members, “but we hope that loss will be mitigated or eased somewhat, knowing that their ministries to the poor will remain and grow.”

He said Archbishop Lucas – who has helped prepare sandwiches at Holy Family for its sack lunch program – knows the importance of those ministries and has stressed that he wants to see them to continue.

Dick Wirges, a member of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Omaha, slices ham for sack lunch sandwiches. A donation of ham is a treat for those who depend on the bagged meals. Cheaper meats, such as bologna and salami, are more typical, volunteers say. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

HEART FOR THE POOR

Parishioners say they are a close-knit group, like family, who are proud of Holy Family’s long legacy of ministry to the poor, civil rights work and other social justice efforts.

“We have such a rich history and such a close parish,” parishioner Carl Wirth said.

Deacon Aulner said Holy Family members “always had a heart for the poor, and justice has been at the forefront” of their efforts.

“They are energized by their activism,” he said, and they’ll continue going to the church grounds to serve the poor and those in need.

The Siena Francis House homeless shelter is just blocks away, and the parish and shelter have often collaborated in their efforts.

Parish ministries include its Monday-Friday lunch program, which provides sack lunches to 100 to 150 people a day; distribution of food discarded by stores and restaurants to organizations that serve the poor; the Door Ministry, which supplies clothes, food and other supplies to about 120 people a day; and Blessed Family Street Ministry, which takes sack lunches to roughly 150 people a day at several locations in east and south Omaha.

UTMOST RESPECT

At the church, the parishioners created “an environment welcoming to anyone,” Deacon Aulner said, including those most neglected and forgotten.

Pattie Fidone, who is in charge of the Door Ministry, and other volunteers believe in treating those they serve with the utmost respect.

Fidone puts that into practice when she sorts through donated clothes.

“If it’s something I wouldn’t put on my children or myself, I don’t hang it up,” she said.

Besides clothes – including hats, gloves and other winter gear – the Door Ministry provides food pantry items and helps with emergencies, like replacing a car battery or contributions toward rent or utilities. The ministry sends donated children’s items to 16 elementary schools in north Omaha.

Volunteers come from as far as 90 miles away to help, Fidone said. “It’s pretty amazing.”

NEW HEADQUARTERS

Under the archdiocesan plan, St. Frances Cabrini Parish will assume responsibility for the former Holy Family property, which will be leased to St. Vincent de Paul.

The organization moved its headquarters to Holy Family last year.

Holy Family Church, near 17th and Izard Streets, will become an east Omaha hub for St. Vincent de Paul, which will keep in place the Door Ministry and sack lunch program and other services, said Deacon Marty Smith, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Omaha.

“All we really want to do is make sure it (the service to the poor) continues – and build upon it,” Deacon Smith said. “We have a 130-year legacy to maintain and support, not to supplant.”

The continued services will be called Holy Family Ministries in tribute to that parish legacy, he said.

With the help of other organizations, St. Vincent de Paul plans to offer more services, including vouchers to St. Vincent de Paul thrift stores, screening for government benefits, job fairs, health care information, income tax assistance, access to performing arts, Bridges Out of Poverty classes and courses on cooking and nutrition, resume writing and job hunting.

St. Vincent de Paul is well equipped to support Holy Family, with its network of about 700 volunteers from 31 parishes in the Omaha area.

Recipients line up for sack lunches served at Holy Family’s door. The parish serves the lunches to 100 to 150 people a day on weekdays. Another 150 or so lunches are driven by van to other locations in east and south Omaha. Serving at Holy Family’s door are Fran Berg, left, a member of St. John Parish at Creighton University, and Hanh Nguyen of St. Leo the Great Parish in Omaha. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

PARISH SUPPORT

St. Frances Cabrini Parish will also help support the long-standing ministries, said Father Damian Zuerlein, pastor.

“The goal is to have all that continue,” he said. The Holy Family parishioners “are more than welcome here.”

Any remaining Holy Family funds will be used to make some repairs to the church building, and St. Vincent de Paul also will raise funds for needed improvements, Father Zuerlein said.

The upper-level worship space will be preserved as a chapel and will be used for occasional Masses and even some performing arts shows, to give people access to the arts who might not otherwise be able to afford the performances, Deacon Smith of St. Vincent de Paul said.

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DONATIONS STILL NEEDED
Anyone who would like to contribute to Holy Family ministries to the poor can send donations to Holy Family Ministries, 1715 Izard St., Omaha, NE, 68102; or through the parish website.