Small parishes are ‘home’ to many big hearts

By Kira Ciupek

As a little boy, some of Father David Leibham’s fondest memories revolved around attending a tiny country church in a small Texas parish. When the Leibham family of five moved to Brenham in 1975, Father David recalled going to Mass with his grandparents near their home in Latium, at Sacred Heart Parish, in a one story wooden building nestled among a grove of trees.
“I sat with my grandparents in the church, and to keep me quiet, they gave me a job of listening for owls, and counting how many times I heard their sounds,” Father Leibham said.
It was the influence of his Catholic friends at Brenham High School, and the gentle touch of the Dominican Sisters who fed him after-school snacks, that helped Father Leibham to strengthen his faith and to eventually be ordained a priest. Now, almost 30 years after his childhood experiences with the Catholic Church, Father Leibham now finds himself pastor of a small country church –– St. Mary Parish in Hearne. 
With a population of less than 5,000, Hearne sits in the center of the “Texas Triangle,” between Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, and is part of the Bryan/College Station Deanery. Founded in 1876, St. Mary has been designated as a historic chapel. Despite its small congregation of almost 400 families, St. Mary Parish continues to thrive, offering Mass throughout the week and weekends, in both English and in Spanish. 
Providing families, clergy and parishes with the tools necessary to foster spiritual formation is one of the goals of the Austin Diocese’s Pastoral Plan. At the heart of the goal for spiritual formation is the objective of educating families “that they are the domestic church, and that the parish is a family of families.” The St. Mary vision for spiritual formation could be described as, “Working together in passing on the Catholic faith and traditions to all members of our parish community.”
“The parish families are committed to the success of parish life because they have made this community their home,” Father Leibham said. “The families are interconnected through relation, work and socialization, so the challenge is that the pastor must work to maintain a spirit of goodwill among each person, and, conversely, one person’s good feeling about the parish spreads more rapidly among all the families.”
According to statistics gleaned from research compiled by the Pastoral Plan Steering Committee, 76 percent of diocesan Catholic families belong to larger parishes, with 40 parishes in the Austin Diocese might be considered large –– meaning they consist of 1,000 to 6,000 or more families. 
On the other hand, 24 percent of diocesan Catholic families belong to nearly 87 parishes which serve less than 1,000 families. According to the Pastoral Plan, these smaller parishes often “have staffs consisting of only a pastor and a secretary, often part-time, thus limiting the range of services available at the parish level.”
Besides Father Leibham, St. Mary Parish has one deacon, Conception Luna, and the parish offices are open three days a week. Thus small parishes like St. Mary depend on the help and support they receive from the diocese.
“Essentially, the most effective guidance and assistance for a parish comes from the ministry of the bishop through his offices …. During the ceremony, as each parish came forward in a procession to receive the Pastoral Plan from the bishops, there was a sense of connection, support and caring,” Father Leibham said. 
According to the Census Bureau, the Hispanic population in the Austin Diocese will nearly double by 2017. Father Leibham, who has served at St. Mary since 2011, said the number of immigrant families in his parish has nearly doubled in the last five years, and currently, more than 175 families are Spanish-speaking. He said that the greatest need of most immigrant families, “is a place to call home, and spiritual activities that include the entire family.”
The activities offered at St. Mary in Hearne for families who have recently relocated from another country include, “Night of Praise” (Noche de Alabanza), during which a meal is served and a musician and speaker present a program. The parish also hosts a Thursday evening event called “Night of Prayer” (Noche de Oracion), which includes a program for adults in the church and another program for children in the Parish Activity Center.
Rooted in a rich history, St. Mary parishioners are committed to future growth.
At the heart of their mission is the goal of handing on an authentic faith to future generations, and that includes spiritual formation programs and activities that make immigrant families feel welcome. The most important thing, said Father Leibham, is “to take time and listen and help these new immigrant families to find a place in the parish, so that the church can be their first and truest home, and the pattern for their family home.”