Fertile soil for the faith
In an era when so many churches struggle with membership declines, almost everything at St. John the Baptist parish in Harrison has continued to grow – except the tomatoes.
During the early 2000s, then-pastor Edward J. Shine (photo, right) and his flock could readily foresee accelerated population increases in the city of Harrison and surrounding Harrison Township, which sits along the Indiana border some 20 miles northwest of Cincinnati.
Thinking long-term, parishioners bought a 26-acre cornfield a couple of miles east of the current church, intending to someday relocate there.
Meanwhile, it was thought that the land might provide some dividends if church volunteers did a little farming themselves and found a cannery to supply.
“That first year, Father Shine and some parishioners grew tomatoes,” said current pastor Father Jeff Kemper. “The original idea was to sell them to Campbell’s Soup Company or someone like that. But those companies only buy from farms with, like, a thousand acres.”
One faithful customer was Father Angelo Caserta, now the Cincinnati archdiocese’s oldest active priest, whose celebrated Italian Supreme spaghetti sauce has funded a trust for children’s welfare. (Father Caserta’s 99th birthday will be next month. For more about him, including his sauce recipe, head here.)
But despite plenty of volunteers and labor, the tomato project ultimately withered on the vine.
By the end, “they were giving tomatoes away to pantries and to whoever would take them,” Father Kemper said.
“While it wasn’t a success, it’s not a painful memory. People here laugh about it.”
The parish instead squeezed out some income by renting the plot for light farming. Yet if members had been wrong about tomatoes, they’d been right about the eventual squeeze from population growth.
“We have about 1,350 families who are active, and more than that on the books,” Father Kemper said. “Our church only holds 400 comfortably.”
That means seven Masses on weekends, manageable because Father Shine and another retired priest, Father Bill Dorrmann, help out. “They’re both in their mid-80s,” said Father Kemper (pictured at right). “They’re retired in name only.” (A common situation for our senior priests.)
The city of Harrison was home to some 4,400 souls in 1970, before completion of Interstate 74 and the I-275 beltway brought new residents and development. Since 2000, the municipal population has expanded from about 7,500 to more than 11,000.
“We’re one of the last parts of Hamilton County that can really grow,” Father Kemper said.
The pastor, who earned a doctorate in theology at the University of Notre Dame and spent 17 years on the faculty of the Athenaeum/Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, came to St. John the Baptist 10 years ago when Father Shine retired after two decades in the position there.
It fell to the parish’s new shepherd to oversee a capital campaign, launched in 2014, for the long-anticipated construction and relocation.
After raising more than $8 million, the parish broke ground two months ago for the project’s first phase, which will include meeting space, parking, and a 21,200-square-foot church that can accommodate twice as many as the old one. Target date for completion is January 2019.
Harrison’s first Catholic church was a brick structure built in 1851. The third and current one opened 70 years later, when the city population was still less than 1,500. St. John the Baptist’s complex, which includes parish offices, the rectory, and an elementary school with more than 300 students, will relocate in phases over about a dozen years.
“We’ll eventually sell all of this,” Father Kemper said. Meanwhile, even after the new church opens, the historic one will be available for weddings, funerals, and certain other services.
No church’s growth, of course, can depend solely on increases in the general population. Father Kemper, ordained in 1979, says St. John the Baptist parish immediately struck him as extraordinary in its faith and cohesiveness. “What people like here is the strong spiritual life that Father Shine built,” he said. “There’s a diversity of spiritual life, traditional devotion and charismatic, and they all get along. Deacon Don Meyer and others have built a strong sense of mission.”
While women account for an overwhelming majority of volunteers in many parishes, Father Kemper said, “it amazes me that men are so involved here. This is a parish where people thank you for giving them work.”
The work includes “twinning” relationships with Holy Cross parish in Jackson, Kentucky, 150 miles south of Cincinnati, and two parishes in El Salvador. The El Salvador relationship began 15 years ago. “It gives a real sense of the catholicity of the Church, the same faith being lived out in different cultures,” Father Kemper said. “There’s just so much spiritual work being done.”
And unlike that old tomato patch, it’s still bearing fruit.
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