From right to left, Franciscans Fr. Paul Gallagher, Fr. John Eaton, Fr. Tom Nairn and Fr. Duc Pham greet Mass-goers after the celebration. Fr. John Eaton and his brother, Br. Tom, are graduates of Our Lady of the Lake School, which was St. Agnes School when they finished eighth grade. Br. Tom followed his older brother into the order but found his calling as a teaching brother. He taught at the cluster school for years – religion, computer technology and physical education. Fr. John was stationed in the Bayfield cluster at one point as pastor. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

Even the clouds shed tears on the morning of the Mass of Farewell and Thanksgiving in honor of the Franciscan F

riars and their presence in the Chequamegon Bay area June 30 at Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church, Ashland.

More than 140 years of mission and service came to an end with the Mass, and hundreds gathered to celebrate and say goodbye.

Before the Mass, Franciscans who had formerly served in the Ashland Cluster – which includes Our Lady of the Lake; St. Mary, Odanah; St. Florian, Ino; St. Peter, Dauby; Ss. Peter and Paul, Moquah; and other parishes that have closed over the decades – shared greetings and gasps of “my, how you’ve grown” with parishioners, while preludes were sung from the choir loft.

Bishop James P. Powers, the main celebrant, acknowledged the “happy-sad occasion” as he welcomed all present.
During his homily, the bishop quipped that Ashland is “a wonderful place to vacation,” inviting any of the Franciscans to come “home” for a visit.

The bishop preached on the liturgical return to ordinary time.

“Although, there is nothing ordinary about our celebration,” he said, and described the day as having senses of joy, bittersweetness, heaviness and loss, “to be likened to a degree to a death in the family.”

Included in his recognition of and gratitude to the Franciscans present, which included Fr. Tom Nairn, provincial, and Fr. John Eaton, provincial vicar for the Sacred Heart Province based in St. Louis, the bishop thanked them for allowing Fr. Frank Kordek to continue to serve one more year in the Hurley cluster.

“We gather to say goodbye to perhaps the only ordinary or stable human element of the diocese since its establishment back in 1905,” the bishop said.

It was in 1878 that Franciscans were asked to come and minister to the Native American missions and the increasing number of settlers in the region. Later that year, the friars took leadership of the mission parishes of Bayfield, La Pointe, Odanah and Ashland.

“And you have been serving this area and throughout the diocese ever since,” he said, adding that their presence began only 30 years after Wisconsin became a state and 27 years before the Diocese of Superior was established.

Referencing the daily readings and reflecting on them in light of the day’s celebration, Bishop Powers spoke about Elisha’s response to God’s call as received through the prophet Elijah: “Once we choose to follow our God, there’s no turning back.”

He talked about the various excuses that can be given when a call is heard, including those Jesus has called throughout the ages, adding, “And I’m guessing that for most of us, whether it’s ordinary time or whatever time, it’s not a convenient time. I doubt there’s one of us here who were really looking forward to today, or the days to come.”

He addressed the members of the Ashland cluster: “There are going to be a lot of changes, and you’re going to have to discern what role the Lord is calling you to play. You have to decide how you are willing to respond.”

He challenged listeners, “to truly allow our God to speak to you, to touch your heart … that you can make these changes as smooth as possible, as life-giving for all as possible.”

He acknowledged how the time is “anything but ordinary” for the Sacred Heart Province, because “as painful and unordinary as it is for us, today is but the tip of the iceberg of what the friars are going to be going through.”

Bishop Powers explained that the Franciscans are just beginning the start of a “total reorganization … a combining of six provinces into one (throughout most of the U.S.).” He assured them of love, appreciation and prayers.

“As we all prepare for the changes to come, we have choices to make. Of either constantly looking back in lament, or we can look back giving thanks and praise to God for the relationships we have had, which have

helped to form and shape us into the disciples of our Lord Jesus that we are,” the bishop concluded.
As a communion meditation, “Let Me Be Your Instrument” – written by Franciscan Fr. John Eaton, a son of Our Lady of the Lake – was sung with guitar accompaniment.

Beginning a series of remarks, Provincial Fr. Tom Nairn thanked each member of the parishes on behalf of the Franciscans. “For 140 years you, your parents and your grandparents going back many generations have been teachers to the Franciscans. You have shown us your kindness, your generosity, and you have taught us in so many ways.”

He referred to the Mass program’s two-page listing of Franciscans who have served in the Chequamegon Bay region. More than 200 names were listed, with an apology for any missed names.

Fr. Nairn assured them of the Franciscans’ continued prayers and thoughts.

“You will continue to remain a part of us,” he said.

Fr. Duc Pham, parochial administrator, will be known as the last Franciscan to lead the cluster. He expressed his thanks to God for his time in Ashland and the surrounding area and the sacraments they had shared. He encouraged giving thanks to God at all times and in all things.

“The precious ups and the downs are there to give thanks,” he commented.

Provincial vicar Fr. John Eaton, a son of the parish, said he owed a debt of thanks to both the Franciscans and the parish. He recounted serving the 6:45 a.m. Sunday Masses as a boy, and remembered various Franciscans, both friars and sisters, who had taught and ministered to him.

“I can tell you how much the Franciscans who have served in the area have appreciated the warmth, the generosity, the hospitality and the help of the people here in the parishes in northern Wisconsin, and on their behalf, I thank you,” he said.

He was followed by his brother, Bob Eaton, who is trustee for Our Lady of the Lake parish. He thanked both of the priests who had most recently served the cluster – Fr. Duc, returning to where the province needed him, and Fr. Joseph Kumar, who has been assigned to the Bayfield cluster.

Eaton put the Franciscans’ history into perspective; as they were coming to the area, Thomas Edison was inventing the light bulb.

He thanked them for “their business, which has been the salvation of our souls,” and prayed that it “has been exceptionally good.”

Paraphrasing St. John Chrysostom, Eaton said, “We are a single body. Distance separates us, but love unites us,” and summarized how to maintain unity with the friars.

He suggested giving thanks for the remaining Franciscan sisters and Third Order members. He invited attendance to Our Lady of the Lake Church, designed by a Franciscan architect and adorned with statues of Ss. Francis and Anthony, and encouraged visits to the adoration chapel named after a Franciscan.

Eaton proposed going to see the Franciscan mural dedicated to Catholic life in this community, and thanking the DePaduans, many of whom gathered for a reunion the day before. He challenged men to join the Fr. Conan Mitchell, OFM, Knights of Columbus Council.

“Let us be good stewards of the natural wonders which God has bestowed on us; let us walk humbly; let us be instruments of peace; and let us constantly preach, sometimes even with words.

“Let us join in making disciples of all nations, and teaching them to obey everything God has commanded. If we unite with the friars in this mission, surely we will be together always,” he said.

After Fr. Duc offered a few final recognitions, he asked the friars to stand and sing the “Ultima.”

“This is our song that we sing at evening prayer, when the day has come to its completion. This is our song when the life of one of our friars has come to completion, and I think it’s appropriate for us to sing this today,” he said.

Following along with the printed score in the program, the congregation joined in for a second round of the simple flowing melody. Voices swelled in the gothic-style church, as if singing a lullaby, and there was a mournful silence after.

Bishop Powers offered final words of gratitude on behalf of himself and his predecessor bishops. “Thank you for that gift of faith that has enkindled in so many in the Diocese of Superior … Our love and our prayers go with you.”