A little church in Vail, St. Rita in the Desert, has a colorful and unique history.
It’s best summarized in the booklet “Whispered Prayers in the Arizona Desert” by Ann Grigsby.
“The Shrine has existed for over 60 years as a spiritual foundation for the village of Vail,” she writes.
The news now is how the community of St. Rita is reacting to the retirement of the Rev. Bob Wicht and the announcement that the shrine will no longer be under the auspices of the Salvatorian order, which has been at St. Rita’s since 1967.
Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas wants to appoint a diocesan priest to take the helm.
This has caused much distress among the community. The Revs. Wicht and Al Wagner will leave at the end of May.
Wicht has turned 70, and diocesan policy says no priest can be at the same church for more than 12 years.
Some pastors in the diocese have been grandfathered in and are at their parishes for more than 20 years.
Wagner will minister in California.
The heartbreak at St. Rita’s is twofold: The parishioners have great respect and admiration for both priests, and they fear that a new pastor may eliminate the programs that have made St. Rita’s an icon in the Vail community.
Losing these amazing priests’ leadership saddens us but can be tolerated because of the progression of time and age.
When they deliver homilies, their words touch the hearts and souls of the congregation.
A chief emphasis of the Salvatorians, as listed in their mission statement, is to “animate the lay people to live their baptismal commitment for Christian leadership, ministry and service.”
This animation is obvious in the Vail community.
St. Rita’s has an Undie Sunday each year when parishioners donate socks and underwear for children in the Vail School District.
At Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, there are food collections for Vail families who may not have enough to eat.
What is inspiring about these events is how the community comes together to make them happen.
In Passing on the Faith sessions, the community comes together to discuss faith in action. The last session focused on conscience and forgiveness.
There are no elections at St. Rita’s. When there is a parish vacancy, candidates’ names are placed in a basket and randomly drawn, letting God choose, much as the apostles chose Judas’ successor.
There are many other traditions at St. Rita that we hope will be retained: parishioners baking bread for the Eucharist; our festival; Coffee Sunday, featuring Just Coffee from Mexico; and Soup and Stations on Fridays during Lent, when the priests eat soup and bread with us.
Similar programs are in effect at other parishes, but the spirit of these programs at St. Rita’s is phenomenal.
Money is never requested, except by the bishop, yet St. Rita’s has very little debt.
People live the gospel, and so do the priests. Camaraderie is encouraged before Mass. The celebrant asks newcomers and visitors to share their stories, and we greet each other.
Babies cry and toddlers giggle, but no sanctimonious looks come from the altar.
Bloopers happen. They are not only forgiven; they are not even acknowledged.
There is no formal choir. If you want to sing, sit by John at the keyboard.
This is a parish where kids want to come. At the sign of peace, there is a crowd of children wanting to shake hands with the priest.
In one beautiful ceremony on Holy Thursday night, instead of the priest washing the feet of selected parishioners, we wash each other’s hands.
It is a very moving experience accompanied by many tears as we imitate Jesus by serving each other.
We are encouraged to bring bells from home to ring at the Gloria on Holy Thursday and at the Easter vigil.
These are the things we do not wish to change at St. Rita’s.
Yes, our priests must move on, but the spirit of community they have developed is what we want to keep.
The bishop came to St. Rita’s for a listening session to ascertain what the parishioners are looking for in a new pastor.
Did you really listen, Bishop Kicanas? Or do you see St. Rita’s only as enriching the coffers of the diocese?
Valerie Golembiewski is a Tucson wife, mother, grandmother and New York transplant. E:mail: firstname.lastname@example.org