By Jill Kruse-Domeyer
Witness Editorial Assistant
This article is part of the “Know Your Archdiocese” series, which highlights Catholic communities large and small around the Archdiocese of Dubuque.
WEBSTER CITY — “Well, we’re way out on the western part of the diocese,” said Father Stephen Meyer, pastor of the churches of St. Thomas Aquinas in Webster City and St. Mary in Williams, when recently describing the location of his two Catholic parishes.
Father Meyer has served at St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Mary’s – both located in Hamilton County in north central Iowa – for the past 10 years. The priest said he has enjoyed the assignment and the people he has served at the two parishes. “One of my great joys in the priesthood is being in the middle of people’s encounters with God in the sacraments,” he reflected. “I find that there are good people wherever you go. I get to know them and their life stories over time.”
The larger of the two parishes Father Meyer serves is St. Thomas Aquinas in Webster City, which has nearly 420 parish families. St. Thomas Aquinas also has an elementary school that opened in the 1950s, and currently, 66 students are enrolled at the school in kindergarten through the sixth grade and another 36 go to preschool there. Students who attend the school include both Catholic and non-Catholic children alike.
The town of Webster City which the parish and school call home is located along a bend in the Boone River. It has a population of about 8,000 people and serves as the county seat. Webster City has several claims to fame, including being the birthplace of both Olympian Jenny Simpson, a runner who won a bronze medal at the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, and author MacKinlay Kantor, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning Civil War novel “Andersonville.” Webster City is also known for its historic library, its newly restored art deco movie theater and the Saturday night stock car races it’s been hosting for more than a century.
About 15 miles to the east of Webster City, on the other side of Interstate 35, lies the town of Williams. This small, rural community, with a population of about 350 people, has continued to survive despite a decline in the number of small farms in the area. Williams was founded in the 19th century, the first arrivals attracted to the region by work opportunities made available by the construction of the Illinois Central Railroad. Today, the community is best known for its annual Fourth of July celebration and boasts one of the largest fireworks displays in the state of Iowa.
The Catholic parish in Williams, St. Mary’s, has about 60 parish families and draws people from 12 different area communities. St. Mary’s parishioners put together a float each year for Williams’ Fourth of July parade and provide a food stand during the annual celebration.
The parish’s history dates back to 1875, when a group of German farmers and Irish workers combined resources to build a small Catholic church in Williams. Six years later, St. Mary Parish temporarily became an out mission assigned to the pastor in Webster City. In the year 2000, St. Mary’s once again became connected with St. Thomas Aquinas in Wester City, when the two parishes formed a cluster.
“We have cluster gatherings for the two parishes scheduled every so often to break down the parochial boundaries,” Father Meyer said, “including an outdoor Mass at Briggs Woods Lake (near Webster City) in the summer with a picnic lunch and a movie night with games for the children.”
Deacon Daniel Hurt, who grew up attending both St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Mary’s and took part in both parishes’ religious education programs at different times, serves at both parishes today, including as the director of the parishes’ combined faith formation program.
“Together, we offer quite a few different ministries and programs,” Deacon Hurt said. “Besides offering a combined youth faith formation for grades K-12, we provide a program called Family Enrichment. Family Enrichment is the first Wednesday of October, December, February and April. This is for the entire community — children and adults. We serve a free meal at Family Enrichment, and everyone comes together to grow closer to Christ.”
This past fall, parishioners participating in the Family Enrichment program made blankets for two local homeless shelters, and around the holidays, they donated toys and candy and other stocking stuffer items which were distributed by a local family service agency to children in need. Earlier this month, the parishes offered a vocations panel through the Family Enrichment program that included a priest, a deacon and his wife, and another married couple who talked about being called to their particular vocations. This spring, the program will offer a night for adoration, benediction, Liturgy of the Hours and “prayer stations” set up in the school gym.
Many other programs and ministries exist at the parishes of the cluster to help parishioners learn more about their faith and to more fully live out that faith. One example is the apologetics course that is now offered for adult members at both parishes. Other examples include the mobile food pantry St. Thomas Aquinas has every two months that helps meet a need in the community and the cleaning of highway ditches by members of St. Mary’s as part of their stewardship.
The parishes also offer mission trips each summer for teens — one year the young people serve in Iowa and the following year they go somewhere out of state. Deacon Hurt said this allows the teens to see the needs in “the community and throughout the country” and “they get the opportunity to be the hands, feet and voice of Christ while serving locally or in a bigger city.”
Deacon Hurt said he feels it is a blessing to be able to serve the people of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Mary’s and to be part of their journeys of faith. “Being a deacon and serving Christ in the community I grew up in is awesome!” he said. “Both Williams and Webster City are close-knit communities who encourage and help each other. This is my family!”
Parishioners lead the music ministry during Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Webster City. (Contributed photo)