St. Paschal Church: Celebrating 75 Years

by Bonny Van

Located just off the I-20 exit on a busy street in West Monroe, St. Paschal Catholic Church blends into a landscape dotted with small houses, big businesses and traffic. Pre-occupied drivers might not even notice the 1960s style brick building along 7th Street, except for the large cross on top of a belltower that proclaims its purpose and its mission to serve God and others.

“I think it’s important for us to stress what it means to be part of a Catholic community,” said pastor Fr. Frank Coens. “I’ve been here eight years and people tell me that there’s more activity now.  But, what I’ve found is a group of people willing to volunteer and work.”  Fr. Coens recalls one of his first stewardship meetings. “The chair said, ‘I’ll need some volunteers,’ and all of a sudden, five hands went up.  There’s a real spirit of volunteerism here.”

That spirit, along with open arms and hearts, has carried St. Paschal Church from its beginnings to the culmination of this year’s 75th anniversary celebration. In 1940, Bishop Daniel F. Desmond assigned two Franciscan priests to found a parish in West Monroe. Their job was to care for Catholics in Ouachita Parish west of the Ouachita River.  They lived in a small two-story, four room house, dubbed “St. Paschal on the Range” due to neighborhood cows that paid visits to the priests and grazed near their bedroom windows.

The first Mass was celebrated at Christmas in 1940, in a newly constructed small frame church on 7th Street. Growth continued for the small church with a new friary, school, gym and school cafeteria. By 1963, construction began on a new church and the dedication of that building in December 1964 coincided with another milestone, the 25th anniversary of the parish.

Seventy-five years later, St. Paschal Parish has gone through many changes. The school was closed due to low enrollment and the economy is always a factor. “I see a lot of our young people going off to college and not coming back. We live in an economically depressed area,” said Fr. Coens.

In spite of those issues, St. Paschal is “the little church that could.”  Parish life is more vibrant than ever and community outreach programs continue to make a huge difference in many people’s lives. “We’re a very welcoming and friendly,” says parishioner Cathy Nolan. “I’ll often see people in the parking lot before Mass that may be new and I make a point to welcome them and say we’re glad to have them.  We’re family oriented and try to make everyone feel comfortable.  And, we are very active.”

Besides offering a friendly smile and warm welcome, St. Paschal parishioners are always working to serve, whether it’s for the church or the community. Besides the Parish School of Religion and Adult Bible Class, the church conducts a Spanish Mass and supports a Hispanic ministry; has a strong youth ministry program; offers RCIA classes; and, is a host church for Family Promise of Ouachita Parish, which helps homeless families transition back into jobs, schools and housing. “If you consider the size of St. Paschal, I think the caring spirit is really incredible,” said Nolan.

“Our major events, the parish picnic, our potluck event (“Taste of St. Paschal”), and the annual Herbal Harvest Festival are not money makers,” says Fr. Coens, “but we are able to support ourselves and give to charities.  It’s a matter of being able to get together, to enjoy each others’ company and to work together.”
One of the driving forces behind all that work is Sister Edith Schnell, catechetical leader and pastoral minister at St. Paschal.  And, when Sr. Edith calls, volunteers answer. “How can you say ‘no’ to Sr. Edith?” is the saying around the church.

“That’s probably true,” laughs Sr. Edith. “I’m like a salesperson and I’m right there with them and giving them all the tools they need to do the job.”
Now, all of that work will be celebrated in special Mass celebrated by Bishop Michael Duca, Sunday, January 17th at 10:00 a.m. at St. Paschal Catholic Church.
“The future holds the same promise as the past,” says Fr. Coens. “We’ll be a community of faith that comes together to pray together and to work together.”

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