In 1894, German friars arrived in Sacramento from St. Louis. Ever since then, Franciscans have steered the St. Francis of Assisi parish in midtown.
Now, a transition is underway in which Franciscan priests will no longer be pastors at what has long been one of the most diverse and well-attended Roman Catholic churches in the Sacramento diocese. Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto appointed a priest from the diocese over the weekend who is not a Franciscan.
The reason for the Franciscan religious leaving St. Francis? The order simply does not have enough priests to go around.
St. Francis’ faithful have reacted with a full range of emotions, said Judy Miranda, a co-chair of the transition team at the parish, housed in a 106-year-old building at 1066 26th St.
It has been 125 years that the Franciscans have been in that parish. They are leaving behind an awful lot of goodwill.
Kevin Eckery, spokesman for the diocese
“We are finding that people are beginning to accept that the friar pastoral ministers are having to leave us,” Miranda said. “There are just not enough men to supply the parishes. We are getting ready to welcome the new pastor.”
Over the weekend, parishioners were told that the new pastor for St. Francis as of July 1 will be the Rev. Desmond O’Reilly. O’Reilly has been the pastor at Lady of Lourdes parish in Sacramento.
The outgoing pastor of St. Francis of Assisi, the Rev. Ken Laverone, will depart Friday. He will be spending the summer and early fall as a missionary on the Camino Frances, an ancient pilgrimage route.
The Rev. Sebastian Sandoval, associate pastor, will join a Los Angeles parish where he will be near his mother who will be having surgery. Friars, who are not ordained priests, will continue to live at St. Francis, and Franciscan sisters will continue ministries.
The first friars quickly constructed a church building in 1895. By 1901, six Franciscan nuns had arrived from their New York mother house to teach at a newly opened Catholic school.
The present church, an awe-inspiring blend of Mission-style exterior and German-influenced interior, was dedicated in 1910. Then, the church was on the outskirts of Sacramento, across the street from a crumbling Sutter’s Fort.
The friars, “being German and thrifty,” decided to use some of the fine wood from the 1906 remodeling of the state Capitol. The carpenters repurposed a state stairway as the staircase to the church organ loft and fashioned secular gargoyles into the heads and wings of angels.
And so it went through the decades, with the church under the watch of the Franciscans. The St. Francis parish helped the survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, founded Francis House to minister to the homeless in the 1970s, and ministered to those with HIV/AIDS in the 1980s.
These days, St. Francis church continues to minister to the poor, providing overnight shelter and breakfast for the homeless.
Church members believe their mission is in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, the son of a well-to-do Italian cloth merchant who was something of a 12th-century high spirit. He longed to go to war.
However, when he went off to battle, he was captured and imprisoned. He had undergone a change when he was released a year later, rejecting material wealth.
He was driven by God’s message to “rebuild my church.” With approval from the pope, he helped establish three religious orders: the first for friars, the second for nuns – still called “the Poor Clares” for St. Clare of Assisi, who worked with Francis – and a third predominately for lay followers.
“The Franciscans have had a strong influence in Sacramento over the years,” said Laverone. “St. Francis Parish has been for the past 35 or 40 years where people know they are welcome, where maybe they might not be welcome in other parishes, for whatever reason, especially regarding the LGBT community.”
“It has been 125 years that the Franciscans have been in that parish,” said Kevin Eckery, spokesman for the diocese. “They are leaving behind an awful lot of goodwill.”
“This is a tough time for everyone,” Laverone wrote in a parish newsletter. “Transition is always difficult especially when it is transition into the unknown.”
Longtime parishioner Miranda said church members at first reacted with denial that the pastoral change would happen. But over the weeks, the parish has moved from “you have got to be kidding” to “OK, this is the next step, and we will be a fully diocesan parish with a diocesan pastor leading us. We look forward to welcoming Father O’Reilly to minister in our parish.”