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Father Morse Leaves Legacy At St. Mary’s Church
St Marys
Jeff Steves and Mary Ann Heath stand proudly in front of their labor of love. At the request of former Priest, Father Richard Morse, the two co-chaired the efforts to bring the building project, the Family Life Center at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Oakdale, to fruition. - photo by TERESA HAMMOND

As parishioners of St. Mary’s Church are busy preparing and helping newly appointed Priest, Father Matthew O’Donnell get settled, it is the Family Life Center which will forever maintain the memory and dedication of retired Priest, Father Richard Morse.

Described by a number of parishioners as a humble man, Father Morse preferred not to be a part of publicity relating to the 15,000-square foot building completed in early 2021. An endeavor which took years to fundraise for and nine quick months to complete.

Situated just slightly left of center of the Catholic church parking lot at 1225 Olive St., Oakdale, the building is both grand, as well as state of the art.

“This is what brings people together. We wanted to build a stronger community,” co-coordinator and parishioner Mary Ann Heath said of the building.

“If you’re going to keep the parish together and the congregation, you have to have this. We were the only one in the Diocese that doesn’t have this,” Heath’s co-coordinator in the project Jeff Steves shared.

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

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

Heath also drew on the vision of others to help realize that dream.

“Eleanor Brennan was my inspiration,” she explained. “She used to always say, we need a new Hall. I used to help the church before I became Catholic.”

Both longtime community members, Heath and Steves shared it was the love and respect the parishioners had for Father Morse which made the collection of over $3 million in donations possible. Through three years of fundraising and a small loan when construction was started, the St. Mary’s community now has a 15,000-square foot facility which was not only needed, but is free and clear of all debt.

“It really pulled at my heart strings,” Steves said of the way parishioners contributed, regardless of age or income. “Everyone gave because they want to be involved.”

Heath shared that, in addition to the private donations, a fair amount of fundraisers were held, as well as checks given by some anonymous big money donors.

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

This was the third project of its kind for Heath, who served on the board for the original Gene Bianchi Community Center, as well as the updated and larger one which now sits in the middle of Oakdale on South Second Avenue.

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

Those experiences taught her a lot, which affected the decision for the types of floors, counter top 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; that was his highlight. He was so proud of the kitchen.”

“I feel very proud. Very proud of Father Morse,” Steves stated. “I call him the Project Priest. Everywhere he goes, he has a project.”

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

The inside space includes a barroom, a youth room, restrooms and a full-service spacious kitchen, as well as an outdoor space which may also host events.

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

“It’s been an adventure. It’s been a big adventure,” Heath added. “I’m very proud of it, very proud. Says a lot for Father Morse and how we all come together.”