ST. MARY'S ACADEMY in Hoosick Falls, where Masses will be held for Immaculate Conception parish.
ST. MARY'S ACADEMY in Hoosick Falls, where Masses will be held for Immaculate Conception parish.
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Immaculate Conception par­ish in Hoosick Falls is making a move.

On July 1, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger joined parishioners for an evening prayer service and discussion about relocating to 4 Parsons Ave., the campus of St. Mary’s Academy, the parish school.

Masses will be celebrated in the school gymnasium; by Sept. 1, the parish will conclude a discernment process about renovating part of the gym to create a new worship space.

That space would replace the current circa-1870 church, which has severe structural damage.

The Albany Diocese has offered to assist the parish with its current debt, as well as provide significant help — financially and through services — as the parish undertakes the building of a new church space.

Rev. Thomas Zelker, pastor, compares the parish’s journey to that of the Apostles who went out on a boat with Jesus and were hit by a storm that threatened to sink them.

“We’re storm-tossed,” the pastor said of his parishioners — but added that, when the Apostles cried out to Jesus amid the waves and thunder, He told them they had no reason to fear, assuring them that they would weather the storm.

“We’re trying to keep it going,” Father Zelker said. “We’re celebrating; we’re praying. We’re not letting anything stop us.”

Bishop Scharfenberger, after his visit to Hoosick Falls, told The Evangelist that “I was moved by the love and passion of the people and the patient dedication and stewardship of the parish leaders. This is a winning formula for a community in transition to the next great chapter of its admirable history.

“I am inspired by and grateful for the tenacity of the people of Hoosick Falls, who have weathered many difficult challenges in the recent past and always rise to the occasion and find a better way forward,” he added.

What happened

Ever since flooding in July 2017 left Immaculate Conception Church with massive water damage and mold issues, parishioners and diocesan officials have been meeting to discuss whether to try repairing the building or relocating.

Immaculate Conception had roof and ceiling problems even before last summer. But, when the storm surged through Hoosick Falls, the church’s sub-basement — which has a dirt floor — took on nearly nine feet of water, mud and silt, saturating its support structures.

Rev. Thomas Zelker, pastor, noted that it wasn’t clean water, either; it was filled with debris and with sewage from a broken sewer line. The church hall was similarly flooded with a foot of water and sludge.

Heaters and air blowers were brought in to try and keep the resulting mold and mildew from getting too severe. For several months, Masses were celebrated at nearby St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and in the gym at St. Mary’s Academy.

By autumn, parishioners were using the church again, despite the need for major structural repairs — and then, in May, a chunk of plaster fell from the ceiling near the altar.

It was the second time that had happened. Four years ago, Father Zelker recalled, a much larger decorative plaster feature from the ceiling had crashed down onto the altar.

This time, the pastor said he was initially determined to keep using the church, even though the diocesan insurance company said it was unsafe. He thought he’d just move the altar.

But, on Memorial Day weekend, a piece of his bedroom ceiling in the rectory fell because of water damage two floors above. It shook Father Zelker.

“It narrowly missed me,” he recalled. “It was old plaster; it came down in jagged pieces. I realized, if a piece fell off the church ceiling [again], somebody could be hit. I was putting the building ahead of the people.”

Father Zelker apologized from the pulpit, and Masses were moved from the unusable church to First United Presbyterian Church in town. That’s been the parish’s home-away-from-home since June.

The pastor lauded the First Presbyterian congregation for their kind welcome of Immaculate Conception’s parishioners. There’s even a “Catholic corner” in the Presbyterian church where Father Zelker is allowed to store items for Masses, he said, and he was given a key to the building.

In June, Immaculate Conception Church was dealt another blow: Thieves broke in and stole 30 feet of copper piping that funneled the water supply to the church and its heating system.

Discussions continue

Through all of this, the parish’s pastoral council and a special group called the Critical Review Committee have both continued to meet, assessing the number of parishioners — 300 people attend Mass each week, though more are on the parish rolls, making Immaculate Conception the biggest congregation in the area — as well as general parish expenses and the cost of repairs vs. relocation.

Father Zelker said with pride that, “even in the midst of not having a church,” the parish exceeded its $22,926 Bishop’s Appeal assessment this year, bringing in more than $24,000 at last count.

“I thought that spoke a lot of the people,” he said. “We’re hurting and struggling, but we’ve stuck together.”

Father Zelker said the crisis has caused the parish “to look at who we are.”

Recently, he said by way of example, there was a parish picnic and “we had our first parish ministry fair. Thirty-something people came forward [to volunteer] for different ministries: home visits for shut-ins, greeters, readers, a prison ministry, a bereavement group.”

Last weekend, Immaculate Conception sponsored a canoe race on the Hoosic River; this weekend, there’s a celebration of the feast day of St. Kateri Tekakwitha.

“I see that as most important,” the pastor said of the slate of summer events — some of which have meant cramming parishioners into the rectory, but no one has protested. “Our faith has to be nurtured. The Church has got to be a garden that gives life.”

Hurting and healing

Father Zelker, who’s been pastor of Immaculate Conception “for eight years as of Aug. 1 at 7:00 in the evening,” knows his flock is hurting. He is, too.

“My role as pastor is to walk with the folks here,” he told The Evangelist. “They’ve been researching, gaining the wisdom of what we can do, what we ought to do. My job would be to accept that wisdom.”

Bishop Scharfenberger offered his support and encouragement for Father Zelker to do that, stating: “I am convinced that you can look forward to a future full of hope.”