Father Morse leaves a legacy at St. Mary’s Church

As parishioners at St. Mary’s Church are busy grooming and helping newly appointed priest Father Matthew O’Donnell settle in, it is the center of family life that will forever hold the memory and the dedication of retired priest, Father Richard Morse.

Described by a number of parishioners as a humble man, Father Morse preferred not to be part of publicity relating to the 15,000 square foot building completed in early 2021. A venture that has taken years to raise funds and nine quick months to complete.

Located just slightly to the left of the center of the Catholic Church parking lot at 1225 Olive St., Oakdale, the building is both grand and state-of-the-art.

“That’s what brings people together. We wanted to build a stronger community,” coordinator and parishioner Mary Ann Heath said of the building.

“If you want to keep the parish together and the congregation, you have to have this. We were the only one in the diocese that didn’t have that,” said Heath’s coordinator in the project, Jeff Steves.

According to the duo, it was a dream fulfilled by Father Morse, who did his part to bring the church together with support, while giving them the freedom to see it through.

“Father Morse and I both had the same dream,” Heath said of the construction of the Family Life Center. “I had this dream since I converted to the church in 2000.”

Heath also relied on the vision of others to help realize this dream.

“Eleanor Brennan was my inspiration,” she explained. “She always said, we need a new room. I was helping the church before I became a Catholic.

The two longtime members of the community, Heath and Steves, shared that it was the love and respect parishioners had for Father Morse that made raising more than $3 million in donations possible. Thanks to three years of fundraising and a small loan when construction began, the community of St. Mary’s now has a 15,000 square foot facility that was not only needed, but debt free.

“It really tugged at my heartstrings,” Steves said of how parishioners contributed, regardless of age or income. “Everyone gave because they wanted to get involved.”

Heath shared that in addition to private donations, a good number of fundraisers have taken place, as well as checks given by some big anonymous donors.

“Father Morse came along and people loved him. He had a dream and they supported him and here we are,” Steves continued of the movement to make the Family Life Center a reality.

It was the third such project for Heath, who served on the board of the original Gene Bianchi Community Center, as well as the updated and larger center that now sits in the middle of Oakdale on South Second Avenue .

“I had learned a lot,” she said of the first two experiences.

These experiences taught him a lot, which influenced the decision for floor types, counter surface, kitchen layout, as well as sound and audio video systems.

“The whole thing is a big package. I’m really proud of the kitchen,” Heath said. “Father Morse; it was his highlight. He was so proud of the kitchen.

“I feel very proud. Very proud of Father Morse,” Steves said. “I call him the priest of the project. Wherever he goes, he has a plan.

Heath noted that the space has been used for a number of events held at the church, but is also available to rent through a parishioner. Caterers, as well as bartenders, must be pre-approved.

The indoor space includes a bar, youth room, restrooms and a spacious full-service kitchen, as well as an outdoor space that can also host events.

“The highlight of the project was once the final stages came together, seeing the final ending and everyone enjoying it,” Steves said of the whole project.

“It was an adventure. It’s been a great adventure,” added Heath. “I’m very proud of it, very proud of it. That says a lot about Father Morse and how we all come together.

Jerry B. Hatch