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Sunday, June 16, 2024

St. Rita’s Church in Show Low: Celebrating 50 Years of History

By Francis H. Boyer, expanding on the original history of St. Rita’s by Bill Sexton

The Period of Foundation

“Unless the Lord built the house, they labor in vain who build it.” (Psalm 127 Vs. 1)

Our northern mountains of Arizona are the significant difference that identifies this portion of the state from the “valley” and lowlands of the southern regions, and it is interesting to reflect on the people and times of the 1950s, the era when the roots of our St. Rita history were being planted and nurtured.

The White Mountains region is exceptional for its natural beauty, its terrain, and climate. This was the time when large expanses of land were used for farming and grazing livestock, and there was a beautiful wooded hill that overlooked the White Mountain community of Show Low.

At that time most of the people and industries were in the McNary community, while the areas of Pinetop & Lakeside were developing and, more than Show Low, were home to a growing number of people and businesses.

A newspaper account of those early Show Low days referred to the “beautiful hill that overlooked the community,” a prominent site that a local religious group had greatly desired but, as was noted in the account, the Catholic Church had obtained it. This refers to the property on which St. Rita’s came to be built. It is comforting to reflect and realize that God was working His will to create a Catholic community in Show Low, amidst a sometimes hostile and chaotic setting.

Eris Marks and his wife Mary, residents of Show Low, owned and operated the Paint Pony Lodge, still in existence today. They were moved to open the lodge on Sundays to give the churchless Catholic community a place to gather for Mass. This was in 1949, and was the inspiration of Fr. John Baptist Schurnk, OFM, was was the pastor of St. Anthony Church in McNary. Fr. Schurnk contacted and worked with the Gallup, NM diocese to begin the establishment of the new church. It was Eric Marks who negotiated the purchase of the “beautiful hill” in 1961. Also at this time, Sunday Mass at the Paint Pony stopped and was continued at the elementary school auditorium, providing more needed space.

Preliminary planning for the church continued under the direction of the various pastors at McNary, and Catholics of the area happily anticipated the day when they would have their own house for worship and community life, but this would come only after much sacrifice and prayer, as events later proved. At this time the children of the parish received CCD lessons from Fr. Schurnk, who came on Saturdays to teach them. Pastoral guidance for the people was now present in the person of Fr. Linus Hohendorf, OFM, pastor of St. Anthony Church in McNary, who had succeeded Fr. Schurnk.

The use of the Paint Pony and school auditorium was to continue for a long period of time. It was not until September 24 in 1961 that there was a groundbreaking ceremony on the hill site, the physical beginning for the establishment of St. Rita Church. The Catholic community members were ready and eager workers in the project. Under the direction and supervision of a very special benefactor,m Anthony A. Van Wagenen, Jr., the dream would begin. Van E=Wagenen was a practicing attorney who lived primarily in Phoenix, and his avocation was architecture, and so he designed and oversaw construction of the c/church and its furnishings, giving generously of his time, talents and finances as well as the use of his crew and equipment.

At the time, Van Wagenen lived in Phoenix but had his second home and a farm/workshop in Lakeside. He zealously applied his talents and finances to his dream of creating, in the years to follow, a beautiful and unique house of worship for the Lord. Using expert workmanship and solid walnut wood, he and his crew quickly completed the entire interior of the church, with handmade pews, paneling, and the various structures such as the confessional, choir loft, etc. necessary for the needs of the church.

Searching for a special artwork to adorn the sanctuary, Van Wagenen and his wife traveled to Europe where, in an antique shop in Spain, they discovered the large crucifix we now see displayed on the upper back wall in the Church’s sanctuary. It had been rescued from a church in Spain that was razed, as were many churches, during the Spanish Civil War (in the 1930’s). The age of the crucifix, as stated by Bill Sexton, who was assisting with the interior work of the Church at the time the Van Wagenens returned with it to St. Rita, and as told to this writer, is about seven hundred years old (told c. 1990). In its long history the crucifix had sometimes suffered abuse and was in a state of disrepair, with evidence of a number of attempts (paint patches with broken surface plaster, overall varnishing, etc) to correct the general problems of time and deterioration that had occurred over the centuries. The crucifix underwent a restoration, done by this writer, about 1994.

Art history defines an icon as a religious subject in which the viewer enters into the mystery and implications of the subject it presents. With this particular icon crucifix we see, in the top panel, the sorrowful Mother of God, garbed in black, while the bottom panel, illuminated with light, gives us the Apostle John holding a ciborium. The main body of the work presents Jesus, in a crucified position, but garbed as the eternal high priest and crowned with a gold crown, King of Kings. Like most icons, it is painted on a panel of wood but this icon has a frontal coating of plaster that is sculpted in bas-relief to give us a more prominent figure of the Lord.

Other noteworthy appointments in the church are the statues of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, handmade, and of Spanish origin. Fr. Cyril Levy, then pastor of St. Rita, purchased the statues in 1968. They are, for us, beautiful reminders of the presence of the Holy Virgin and St. Joseph, guiding the fledgling Church in the White Mountains.

Let us now return to the now-functioning St. Rita Church where the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was first celebrated on June 24th, 1962 by Fr. Linus Hohendorf. St. Rita was actually a mission of St. Anthony Church until June 20th, 1963 when Bishop Bernard T. Espelage of the Diocese of Gallup, NM made it a separate parish. This new parish’s area consisted not only of Show Low, but also Snowflake and Heber. The first pastor for St. Rita was Fr. William Bressler.

There is a brass plaque mounted on the outside wall of the entry to the church. On it refers to the dedication of St. Rita Church, and the date shown under it is May 22, 1968 – the feast day of St. Rita.

In answer to the question “why was the church named for St. Rita of Cascia?” St. Rita was the patron saint of the wife of Anthony Van Wagenen and permission was given to nae the church after her patron.

At the time of the first Mass, the interior of the church was unpainted, the floor was bare, and there was no pews, nor was there any walnut paneling. Those who came to Mass usually brought their own chairs.

Even though there was now a church and people attending, St. Rita was not an independent parish. In its early years it was a mission of St. Anthony in McNary until Bp Bernard Espelage, the first bishop of the Gallup Diocese, declared it a separate parish. The first official pastor of St. Rita was Fr. William Bressler who arrived here on June 10,1963.

For reasons to be discussed later, the efforts to complete the church had come to a standstill from about 1964 to April 1966, the time Fr. Cyril Levy was appointed pastor of St. Rita, a position he was to hold for three and a half years. With his usual dedication and enthusiasm, Sr. Levy pastored the church in a difficult period, encouraging the work to progress toward the completion of the basic building. This was about 1967. During this time the Van Wagenens were thoroughly involved in the continuing work. It is known, as indicated above, that they journeyed to Europe searching for a suitable crucifix for the church’s sanctuary. We can assume that their travels took place in the period of “work slowdown” during the mid-60s. An early colored photo of the church’s interior, c. 1967, shows the large icon crucifix in the sanctuary but no statues of the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph.

An old photo of St. Rita's Church.
An old photo of St. Rita’s Church.

With the Van Wagenen’s return to St. Rita, the work continued to proceed, creating the beautiful church that we enjoy today. In late 1969 Fr. Levy was replaced as pastor by Fr. Justin Klumbis; just a couple years later, on February 1971, Bp Espelage died. The new Bishop for the Diocese of Gallup was to be Jerome J. Hastrich.

In this foundation period the pastors for St. Rita included Fathers William Bressler, Isidoro Llano, Stanley Conrad, Samuel Wilson, Cyril Levy, Justin Klumbis, Isidoro Llano (again) and Rafael Perez.

In 1979 Fr. Jose Rodriques was assigned as pastor to St. Rita by Bishop Hastrich, a position he was to hold for nine years.

Under Frs. Llano and Perez, planning and initial construction work had begun for a parish hall but because of the problems that existed within the parish, progress was difficult and slow as was the development of a spiritual environment for the parish members. The actual building of the parish center was begun under Fr. Rodriquez in 1979. The building was completed in 1980 with much of the work being done by the people of the parish.

The parish hall having been completed, work was begun on the rectory, and, as before, the parishioners contributed greatly to this project. The basic shell was contracted for but the the remainder of the work was done by members of the parish who completed the rectory in 1982. In 1985 work was begun on the garage and an apartment addition to the rectory, this too done by parish volunteers.

By 1970 Anthony Van Wagenen had retired from the St. Rita project having finally completed our beautiful house of worship for the Lord. After that little is known of him except that his wife Rita died about 1977. Anthony himself passed from this life in Phoenix in 1982 at the age of 89.

A church being more than just a construction and physical appointments, we can look at the functioning community within the Church where the Eucharistic Christ resided and called His people to Himself. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and devotional life was a continuing presence as more people came into the area and the parish grew. The needs of the parishioners were met with catechesis and spiritual injection given by the pastors and people. Social activities, IE potlucks, breakfasts by the mens club, various functions by the womens’ club, were all notable and important in creating a parish life.

The need for classrooms soon became evident and it was under Fr. Alberto Avella, who came to St. Rita in 1988, that this need was met.

Regressing for a moment, at one time there were Sisters at St. Rita. Fr. Levy was able to enlist the help of sisters from Holbrook, and then from St. Johns. This gift was to continue for only a few years, as the number of sisters in their communities declined in numbers. The laypeople of the parish then stepped forward to continue the work of catechesis and religious instruction for the young people.

Six classrooms were created within the parish hall by using accordion dividers. The dividers, when pushed back, gave space for social get-togethers, everything from potlucks to dances. On the completion of the hall’s renovations Bishop Donald E. Pelotte, the new Episcopal for the Gallup Diocese, came to Show Low and blessed this valuable work. Sadly, Bishop Hastrich, a man beloved by the priests and people of the Diocese, had died on May 12, 1995.

The Period of Development

For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56, vs. 7)

As mentioned above, Fr. Alberto Avella come to Show Low from St Johns in 1988. He had a fruitful thirteen year tenure here. Even while devoting himself to the spiritual needs of the parish, he still found time to achieve an impressive number of projects. When he arrived at St. Rita, noting the unpaved parking lot, he made this his first assignment. It, like other works here, was accomplished by parish members, and wonderfully, that unidentified “troublesome element” donated to the work and the cost of cement. Father also inaugurated, on a permanent basis, the Sunday Mass in Spanish. Concern and work with the immigrants from Mexico needed attention. On the parish grounds he was moved to have a ramada built, again constructed by members of the parish. This ramada is often used for family celebrations as well as parish activities, IE the annual Fiesta.

At this time, one of the parish members constructed the shrine for our Blessed Mother, using local malipali stones. The statue was donated by another friend of the parish. The vast list continues with the installation of the air conditioning system that we now enjoy, the gift shop for the women’s club enterprise, and Father also initiated a regular monthly Mass for the residents of the local nursing home. The Knights of Columbus organization was also encouraged and begun, replacing the men’s club. Father Avella also created a permanent position and office for a secretary in our now every busy parish. Last, but not least, Father made the final payment to the Diocese for the loan we had obtained in our earlier years.

In August of 2002 Fr. Gil Mangampo was assigned as pastor to our parish. With his quiet and personable manner he worked to strengthen the unity and Catholic identity of St. Rita in a White Mountain Community that was experiencing rapid growth. Many new year-round residents from the southern portion of Arizona and from adjoining states were moving, at an accelerated rate, into the many home subdivisions within and near Show Low. One of the most significant is called Show Low Bluffs which could include about 3000 new homes as well as community centers and services.

Discerning needful projects, Fr. Gil ordered a beautiful and efficient entry structure for the main entrance of the Church. Several more classrooms were added to the southern portion of the church hall and what was previously an unfinished chapel and meeting room were reworked and remodeled to become a comfortable oratory, used for Mass during the winter period, and for special meetings.

The Period of Flowering

It is we who are that house if we hold fast to our confidence and the hope of which we boast.” (Hebrews 3, vs. 6)

October 14, 2008, a new phase began for St. Rita with the assignment of Fr. Joachim (Joe) Blonski as our pastor. The parish had been experiencing difficult times and the spirit and enthusiasm of Fr. Blonski was really a Godsend for St. Rita. The spiritual void that was pervading the parish dissipated with this new pastor. Devout, caring and organizational, his enthusiasm moved the parish members to a like response of joy and appreciation.

Each Thursday, regular devotion to our Eucharistic Lord with daylong adoration and honor was the mainstay that generated much spiritual fruit. In all of this, or perhaps because of it our parish membership grew, as did activities IE the Legion of Mary and lay evangelization activities.

Having resigned his office in 2008 due to a lingering illness, Bishop Donald E Pelotte died on January 7, 2010. During the interim, and in our need, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix filled the void until James S. Wall was ordained Bishop for the Diocese of Gallup on April 23, 2009.

St. Anthony, a parochial school, had been in existence in the Show Low area for a few years, moving from one place to another until it was given a happy and permanent home at St. Rita Parish. With its growing enrollment it is a wonderful gift for our parish and the Catholic community. Bishop Wall has visited us several times to bless and encourage this endeavor.

Fr. Bill Day, another gift to us, has been with us since Fr. Joe came to St. Rita. He was previously assigned to the church in Overgaard/Heber but, some years ago, suffered a horrific automobile accident and has been undergoing long term healing and therapy. While not assigned to St. Rita, he has been a blessed and continual presence here, regularly assisting with the pastoral work of the parish. We are grateful for his presence.

At this writing, November 2012, we are a happy parish and always being blessed in the Lord. Our summer residents and parishioners have left us for a few months, and God willing, they will be with us again. The trials that will face the Church, and thus our parish in the days and years ahead will strengthen us in our faith and trust in Our Lord and Our Lady. History is always ongoing and who can say what wonders the future will present to us.

Expanded Thoughts

+ The church body, which has 40 pews, had at one time 42. Fr. Alberto removed one row and the adjusted the position of all the others because we had a need to provide space for more disabled persons, as well as more space near the communion rail. The two pews were given to Fr. Levy at McNary.

+ St. Rita’s Fiesta began about 1970 or 1971 according to a number of our present parishioners who were here at that time. I was told that this was probably under Fr. Perez, and in those earlier years the parish had an annual parish picnic which evolved into the Fiesta.

+Approximately 1993, while Fr. Avella was pastor, a couple who were non-parish members but for some reason were aware of St. Rita’s came by with a wonderful gift. In a Midwest town’s antique shop, they had come upon a statue of St. Rita of Cascia. The aged statue was still in its original state and was beautiful in its slightly yellowed antique appearance. The parish happily accepted the gift and before long a local artist saw it and asked to redo its appearance to a more modern state. Thus we have our precious presence of St. Rita. As far as I know, the identity of the donors are unknown to us.

+ The two icons on the back wall of the sanctuary are identified as “The Virgin of Vladimir” and “Christ the Divine Teacher”. The originals, of which these two are copies, are dated in the 12th and 13th centuries, and came from Constantinople. The Virgin icon, although having a Russian name, was sighted and purchased by Prince Vladimir of Russia in his world travels who bought it and took it to Russia where it remains today in the museum in Moscow. The Christ icon was a popular theme many centuries ago and was repeated a number of times by different iconologists, as early as the year 600.

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