MERRILL, Iowa | Just two months after Larry and Sue Gengler moved to Merrill and joined Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in 1982, Sue Gengler had been recruited to be an officer in the church's altar society and a volunteer at summer Bible school.
In the 33 years since, they've watched their three children receive first communion and be confirmed in the small Catholic church.
They've served as eucharistic ministers and committee volunteers. They've brought countless salads and pies for parish celebrations, sat in the pews at Mass hundreds of times.
On Sunday, there will be one final Mass, then no more. The parish, which dates to 1893, closes on Tuesday, a result of both a shrinking congregation and the declining number of priests in the Diocese of Sioux City.
"It's going to be very hard. I'm sure there are going to be a lot of tears shed," Sue Gengler said of Sunday's 10:30 a.m. Mass.
Monsignor Mark Duchaine, pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption and neighboring rural parishes in Ellendale and Struble for the past three years, said there were no priests available to replace him upon his upcoming reassignment to another parish.
"This decision was made primarily because of the shortage of clergy," Duchaine said.
That and a declining membership. Duchaine said there were no weddings at the church during his three years there and only "a couple" of baptisms and funerals each year.
Some Our Lady of the Assumption members realized it was probably just a matter of time before they would lose their church.
"We had to be thankful we were able to keep our little parish as long as were were able," Sue Gengler said. "I have to admit, it was not that surprising. I guess we knew deep down that it would be closing."
There are 108 parishes in the diocese's 24 counties, but only 59 active priests and 65 who are retired. A decrease in family sizes has led to a drop in membership at many churches, leaving fewer people to keep committees and other parish functions going.
Even when statistics show that closing a parish makes sense, Bishop R. Walker Nickless said, that doesn't make it any easier.
"I think I've closed six or seven parishes since I've been bishop here, and each one is a terrible experience," Nickless said. "Bishops want to open new parishes and build new parishes, not close them."
On Sunday, Nickless will celebrate Mass with current and former parishioners and former pastors. At the conclusion of the service, Nickless will bless sacred items such as the altar, baptismal font and stations of the cross before the parish has its final meal together. Most will soon become members at nearby St. Joseph's Parish in Ellendale or All Saints Parish in Le Mars. The church property will be transferred to the Le Mars parish, which will ultimately decide the future of the building and property.
It will be tough going to a different church, said Michael Osborn, who has been a member of Our Lady of the Assumption with his wife, Marge, for 12.5 years. It will be especially tough for older parishioners who have a hard time driving, he said. It's six miles to Ellendale. Le Mars is almost as far.
Osborn and his wife have yet to decide which parish they'll join. For now, they're focusing on making Sunday's final Mass a joyful occasion.
"We're tying to make the final Mass a little bit enjoyable," Osborn said. "But when the final word is said, it's going to be the end."