Parish in Valley marking 100 years

Growing over the last 100 years from a small mission to a thriving parish, St. John the Evangelist Parish in Valley has never lost its close-knit sense of faith and fellowship.

Celebrating a century of tradition and growth, parishioners and friends will join Archbishop George J. Lucas Oct. 21 for a 5 p.m. Mass followed by a dinner in the parish center, said Father Lloyd Gnirk, pastor.

The dinner will culminate anniversary celebrations that began with a festival June 24 featuring live music, games, a magician and an historic display, and will include a soon-to-be-published parish directory.

"We wanted to spread the festivities out," Father Gnirk said. "But the climax is the archbishop coming for Mass and dinner."

Founded in 1917 as a mission of St. Patrick Parish in Elkhorn, the parish’s first pastor, Father David Neligan, celebrated St. John’s first Mass on Christmas in its original church – a former Baptist church, purchased and moved to the parish site by an early parishioner, John Zeis Sr.

The parish has grown from 11 original families to about 600. It built the current church and parish center in 1966, and became an independent parish in 1979.

"It’s like a family," said Frank Vencil, who with his wife, Carolyn, has been a member for more than 70 years. "We’re a small parish, so we know everybody and everybody knows us."

They raised seven children in the parish, and over the years took part in the Christian Family Movement, Cursillo, and served on the parish council, including Frank’s election to the first parish council in 1979.

Other service includes helping with the parish’s Lenten fish fry dinners, believed to be the longest running in the archdiocese, dating to 1969.

"We’ve been active since the fish fries started," Vencil said. Carolyn, along with several other women, started the event in the basement of the former church.

"It’s gotten to be a pretty big thing," Vencil said, often serving more than 1,000 parishioners and others from the area.

The parish has a warm and welcoming spirit, Father Gnirk said. "As we have newcomers to the parish, that’s one of the things they comment on."

Parishioner Tracy Kirby said that five years ago, she and her husband, Vincent, moved from Omaha and one of the largest parishes in the archdiocese, St. Stephen the Martyr. Now they appreciate the benefits of a smaller parish.

"It’s a very welcoming community, where you can get to know everyone on a personal level," she said.

The Kirbys’ four children attend religious formation classes at the parish, for which Tracy is a second-grade teacher, and Vincent is vice president of the parish council. Tracy also serves on the planning committee for the anniversary celebration.

One special feature of the parish’s commemoration, Tracy said, is a video titled "A Century of Worship and an Eternity of Love," produced by students of Roncalli Catholic High School in Omaha. (Father Gnirk is president emeritus of the school.) The video can be viewed on YouTube and will be shown at the dinner Oct. 21.

Father Gnirk said his nine years as pastor have been inspiring. "The prayer that we have liturgically is very uplifting when we come together every weekend to praise God, and I’ve found that very gratifying."

To attend the adults-only dinner, people can buy tickets in advance for $20 each after weekend Masses, or by calling the parish office, 402-359-5783.

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