Around the beginning of this year, Mercy Sister Susan Cain foresaw the need to relocate Steuben County Rural Ministry, which she directs. It wasn’t long before an angel flew her way — in the form of a priest, Father Patrick Van Durme, pastor of Our Lady of the Valley Parish.
Unaware of her dilemma, Father Van Durme asked Sister Cain about moving her operation from Main Street in Canisteo to St. Joachim’s Church, which has gone largely unused for the past year. The idea took hold, and by early September the rural ministry’s transition will be complete.
“We are blessed that a place opened up before Father even knew we needed one,” Sister Cain said.
But before the move occurs, due honor must be paid to St. Joachim’s Church, which has served as the Catholic presence for this southwest Steuben County village since the 1850s. A final liturgy will take place at St. Joachim’s on Thursday, July 26 — the feast of St. Joachim and St. Anne, the parents of the Blessed Mother. The public is invited to the 7 p.m. Mass, which will feature many St. Joachim’s people in liturgical roles and a ceremonial handing over of the keys to Sister Cain.
Steuben County Rural Ministry has been located since 1985 in a storefront facility at 7 W. Main St., just a short distance from St. Joachim’s at 34 W. Main St. The building’s landlord is Fred Lang, an Our Lady of the Valley parishioner. Sister Cain explained that Lang has charged a very reasonable rent but is looking to sell the property.
Change has also been in the air at St. Joachim’s. Due to the priest shortage, the parish was clustered in 1998 with St. Mary’s in Rexville and St. Ann’s and St. Ignatius Loyola in Hornell. In 2004 the four parishes were consolidated into one, with Father Van Durme becoming pastor of the newly named Our Lady of the Valley. This move saw the number of full-time priests for the former cluster drop from two to one, so several Masses were eliminated, including weekend liturgies at St. Joachim’s.
Originally, as part of the reconfiguration, St. Joachim’s was to remain open for weddings, funerals and religious devotions. However, Father Van Durme noted that only one wedding and one funeral have been held there in the past year — not enough activity to justify utility and upkeep costs.
“You hate to see it just withering away,” he remarked.
The possibility of offering the church to Steuben County Rural Ministry grew out of a conversation between Father Van Durme and Cris Share Wensel, a former Catholic Charities official who was instrumental in the process that saw St. Joseph’s Convent in Wayland become converted into a home for the dying. Father Van Durme then approached Sister Cain; from there he consulted with parish committees and parishioners. The response, he said, was fairly positive.
Sister Cain, on her end, received a solid endorsement from her administrators in the Sisters of Mercy of Rochester.
“They thought it was like a door opening for us,” she said.
St. Joachim’s rectory was originally proposed for housing the rural ministry, but the church emerged as the better choice due to more open space for food, clothing and household supplies.
“By the time they get the pews out, it will be like one large hall,” Sister Cain said.
The plan gained final diocesan approval in June. Following the July 26 closing Mass, removal of St. Joachim’s pews, tabernacle and other significant religious items will begin. Of special note is the wooden altar that will be transferred to St. Ann’s Church in Hornell, replacing the current altar there. This step will also include placement of altar stones and relics from St. Joachim’s under the altar, along with similar items that were discovered in storage at St. Ann’s. As for other church valuables, Father Van Durme said that some will be stored and others will be donated.
Also to prepare for the rural ministry’s arrival, St. Joachim’s ceiling will be lowered to save on heating. Electrical work will be done as well, with the parish picking up all these costs. The building will remain under the ownership of Our Lady of the Valley, which will charge rent of a mere $1 per year to the rural ministry. Father Van Durme said the parish will also pick up any monthly costs above Sister Cain’s current budget.
“Our Lady of the Valley had heavily supported the ministry anyway, so this is just another way to continue it. Our parish is very, very connected,” Father Van Durme explained, adding that the parish’s commitment is warranted because “there’s a ministry that’s right within the Gospel message.”
Quite naturally, Sister Cain is thrilled by Our Lady of the Valley’s generosity, exclaiming, “Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that wonderful?”
Sister Cain said the ministry plans to move on Sept. 7. She’d like to commemorate the event by arranging a procession from the current rural ministry to St. Joachim’s — signifying what she hopes will be viewed more as a beginning than an ending.
“It’s a heartbreaker having (St. Joachim’s) no longer be our church, but I think it might help having us in there because people know our ministry,” Sister Cain said, adding that she’s happy to still be in a facility that’s right on the main drag in Canisteo. Sister Cain said the rural ministry’s hours will remain the same — Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to noon and 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., with additional hours until 7 p.m. on Wednesdays.
The ministry, which has been operated by the Sisters of Mercy since its founding, will celebrate its 25th anniversary on Sept. 1. In addition to food, clothing and supplies, the ministry offers emergency financial assistance for the area poor as well as referrals for people living outside the ministry’s coverage area. It also provides information regarding counseling, medical and dental care, prescriptions and food stamps.
Funds and volunteers for Steuben County Rural Ministry come from a number of area churches. The ministry is also aided by private donations, grants, the Sisters of Mercy ministry fund and Food Bank of the Southern Tier. Sister Cain, who has served as director since 2000, noted that 1,456 allotments of food were made last year — nearly the same amount as the ministry’s all-time high of 1,498 in 2003.