By David Lias
An effort that in recent years has largely been an internal activity involving people associated with St. Agnes Church and School in Vermillion will be introduced to the public on Wednesday, Sept. 11.
Following the celebration of a 5 p.m. Mass that day at St. Agnes Church, community members are invited to take part in an open house that will be held under a large tent on the school playground to mark the formal kickoff of the Campaign for St. Agnes.
The goal of the campaign is to raise $3 million to make much needed improvements in facilities and programs of the St. Agnes Parish.
Four specific areas have been identified: St. Agnes School, Calvary and Fairview cemeteries, the parish house and adult education.
Father John Fischer, pastor of St. Agnes Church, said a committee of approximately a dozen parishioners has been working in recent years, taking a close look at the future needs of the parish community.
“We were able to boil it down to four (needs) rather rapidly,” he said. “The first and foremost is the school.”
St. Agnes School
The present St. Agnes School was constructed in 1960, and began educating students in 1961. While the building has been well taken care of during the last five decades, it is being taxed beyond its capabilities by growing enrollments and a difficulty in adapting to modern educational needs.
“She’s a lovely old lady, but the building needs some help. She’s getting tired looking, plus in the last five years, the enrollment has gone up rather radically – almost 50 percent, and we’re just plain running out of space,” Fischer said.
The parish is planning a building project to add four new classrooms, an office area and a common workroom for teachers, newer public restrooms and a more centralized entrance for the school.
In addition to the new construction, renovation of the existing building is also planned.
“Looking at things for the future – what kind of technology are we going to need? The windows need to be addressed, the lighting needs to be addressed, the electrical outlets need to be addressed,” Fischer said.
Calvary Cemetery and Fairview Cemetery
He added that St. Agnes is blessed to have two cemeteries – Calvary Cemetery located in Vermillion, and the rural Fairview Cemetery, located east of Vermillion.
“Both need some work, and both need some updating. The one in town, Calvary Cemetery, is most likely going to be filled in 50 years, and we have to look at what we can do to enhance the cemetery on Highway 50 – Fairview Cemetery – with some infrastructure to make it more friendly, and not looking quite as wild,” Fischer said.
Noting that Fairview Cemetery currently looks like “a wild prairie cemetery,” plans have been made to replace the cross at Calvary Cemetery and placing a cross out at Fairview.
“We’re also looking at replacing the altar that’s out at Calvary, and hopefully putting one in at Fairview,” he said.
Other improvements the parish hopes to accomplish include improving the roads at Fairview, planting more trees and updating the fencing at both cemeteries.
“The biggest concern that I have is just the perpetual care – to have enough money so that as the cemeteries fill up they don’t become an overwhelming burden to maintain,” Fischer said.
The Parish House
The Parish House, located at 505 S. Catalina, was originally built 45 years ago as a private home. It was donated to St. Agnes, and has served as the residence of several pastors over the years. It has received few updates and improvements the last four decades, other than responses to immediate needs.
“If you know anything about Catholic priests, most of are more into getting our work done than we are about creature comforts,” Fischer said. “The house needs a lot of stuff done to it. Last year we spent a lot of money abating a mold issue in the basement, and there’s just lots of things like that all through the house.”
A subcommittee of the parish is exploring options ranging from renovating the house to simply building a new one designed to better meet future needs of pastors and the parish community.
“We’re leaning toward building a new one at some point in the future,” Fischer said.
Fischer notes that there is a need for continuing education of adult members of the Catholic church. “That was proven very clearly when the church offered a 12-week video series focusing on Catholicism. “We had 40-plus people attending the two sessions,” he said.
Fischer said he and Tim Tracy, a deacon of the church, were facilitators of this course, “and neither one of us had the time to do it properly. It was a great learning tool, but I felt like I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been in trying to teach people, in trying to anticipate questions.”
The parish, he said, needs to expand its ministry by hiring someone who can devote 15 hours a week as an adult education coordinator.
This person’s duties would include “adult education lectures, series, videos, having speakers come in, helping them connect with retreats in the area, plus helping possibly with RCI, which is the Rites of Christian Initiation, meaning the way we help people join the Catholic Church,” Fischer said.
Fundraising efforts have been going on within the St. Agnes Parish for a considerable time, on a personal, face-to-face basis.
“We’ve met with quite a number of families from the parish, asking them for their help, and seeing what kind of response we’re getting,” Fischer said. “Today, we’ve raised over $1.6 million. We would like to be closer to $2 million when we announce this on Sept. 11, just to get us off the ground. With that money, then, we would start the project for the school.”
The fundraising efforts have been ongoing at the same time the needs of the parish have been reviewed, and the planning process for accomplishing needed improvements has begun.
“We’ve kind of been fundraising as we’ve been planning. The planning part has taken about as long as the fundraising part has taken – trying to envision what the school might look like, how many classrooms might appropriate, does it include administrative space – those kinds of things,” said Rick Frisch, a consultant with the Catholic Diocese of Eastern South Dakota in Sioux Falls.
Frisch became involved with the campaign when it became apparent to local parishioners that they would need some outside help as the growing needs of the church and school were revealed.
“We’ve had landscape architects come out and look at the cemeteries to give us some ideas as to what the changes at those might be and how those may look,” he said, “and as Father said, a committee of women have gone to other parishes in South Dakota to look at rectories and homes to try to figure out what is an appropriate rectory.
“A family home doesn’t provide appropriate meeting space, prayer space. It’s usable as a home for a pastor but it’s not optimal,” Frisch said, discussing the parish house needs. “We’ve had lots of help as we’ve moved through this process trying to figure out exactly when we raise the money, what do we do with it, and what’s the appropriate way to spend it. I think Darla (Hamm, principal at St. Agnes School) has done a really good job working with a design team in terms of what is needed by the school and what that might look like, and the number of classrooms and how they might be constructed.”
Fischer said one thing has become very apparent during the initial fundraising efforts – the generosity of members of the St. Agnes Parish.
“No one has said ‘no’ to a gift. Not everyone has responded, but nobody has said ‘no’ yet. It includes everyone from a single young guy who has a part-time job who has committed $20 per month for three years, to somebody who has made a several hundred thousand dollar level gift and is really committed to trying to make the school happen,” he said. “We think whether we get it all done at one time or not is not really the point. The point is we’ve done the plan, we’ve got a plan and we’ve got money raised to begin to implement much of the plan. All of those projects have contributions towards them already. Several somebodies, several families have made gifts to support each of those priority areas.”
“I think our real hope is that by late fall, we would be looking at who we would have design and develop the construction documents and that sort of thing,” Tracy said. “The hope is that a year from now, we may be able to begin, but until we get all of those formal processes completed, we can’t say that’s what is going to happen. It is our hope.”
Fischer said the public announcement will be part of a fun program that will follow a 5 p.m. Mass on Sept. 11.
“The kids from the school will take an active part in the celebration of the Mass. Afterwards, we’ll have a program for the kids, and then the portion for the adults will be in the playground area on the east end of the school, just announcing the campaign to the parish,” he said. “The bishop has confirmed that he is coming, and we have a nice program put together with music and prayer and some inspiring speakers coming in and talking to us. I’m looking forward to it.
“What’s been fun for me is getting to know the committee. There’s 12 people on the committee who have worked very hard for the last three years, plus envisioning what God is asking us to be about, and taking that leap of faith, trusting that he is going to provide what we need for the betterment of our future,” Fischer said. “I’m always amazed, every place I’ve ever been … the local talent that’s hidden away here. Those people who step forward and exhibit things you just never would have expected.”
Hamm said the program will begin at approximately 6:45 p.m., and last approximately an hour. Hors d’oeuvres and beverages will be served in a large tent at the east end of the school.