Monsignor Kevin McCoy, a Jefferson native, is vicar general of the Sioux City Diocese at a time of change for Catholics in western and west-central Iowa, due in part to a critical shortage of priests. The fates of St. Columbkille in Churdan (pictured below) and St. Brigid in Grand Junction were largely undecided until recently, when the bishop declared they would remain open, to a point. ANDREW McGINN | JEFFERSON HERALDMonsignor Kevin McCoy, a Jefferson native, talks about the five churches that have combined to form Holy Trinity Parish in Fort Dodge. McCoy, 64, is one of just two priests serving Webster County, a county four times the size of his native Greene County. He also has a major administrative role in the diocese as vicar general. ANDREW McGINN | JEFFERSON HERALDWitness to history: In the summer of 1978, McCoy attended the funeral of Pope Paul VI at St. Peter’s Basilica and got closer than he ever imagined.

NO REST FOR THE RIGHTEOUS

In a time of upheaval for rural Iowa Catholics, Kevin McCoy working his collar off

By ANDREW MCGINN
a.mcginn@beeherald.com

Do more with less.

If there’s one edict every working man and woman has undoubtedly heard in the early 21st century, it’s that — do more with less.

Of course, it’s not the first time humankind has been ordered to do the impossible. After all, God once assigned the task of populating the entire planet to just two employees.

“Be fruitful and multiply.”

So it should come as no surprise that even those whose job it is to care for our very souls are having to also make do with less.

The Very Rev. Monsignor Kevin McCoy, vicar general of the Diocese of Sioux City, had good reason to be 20 minutes late recently for an interview that had been on his Apple Watch calendar for more than two weeks, giving the lowliest of Methodists the satisfaction of being able to forgive such a high-ranking Catholic priest for perhaps the first and only time.

He was needed at a funeral home — and as one of only two priests in a county of 38,000, it can be tricky for McCoy to keep to a schedule.

Nevertheless, he came bounding through the door at Holy Trinity Parish in Fort Dodge with a smile, the kind that immediately gives him away as the real McCoy. As in, it’s pretty obvious he belongs to the McCoy clan of Jefferson.

At 64 — an age when many of his old classmates in the Jefferson High Class of ’72 are eyeing retirement — McCoy is arguably working harder than ever.

In the 10 years since he was assigned to Holy Trinity, the Greene County native has found himself and one other priest doing a job once performed by a dozen men.

“If somebody would have asked me, 37 years ago, could you foresee you were going to be here, with just two priests serving Webster County, I would’ve said no,” McCoy confessed.

Thirty-seven years is how long McCoy has been ordained.

The first kid from Jefferson’s St. Joseph Parish to enter into the priesthood, his ordination on July 25, 1981, was such a momentous occasion that the ordination Mass was shown locally on Cablevision. Two nights in a row.

Ask local Catholics for their most memorable televised memory from the summer of 1981 — keeping in mind that Prince Charles married Princess Diana four days later — and they may very well say the ordination of Kevin McCoy.

One of seven kids, he was the one most likely to answer a higher calling.

Growing up, his idea of fun would be to play Mass, brother Tim McCoy remembered.

“We’d have potato chips for communion,” Tim said.

From serving barbecue-flavored communion hosts to serving midnight Mass at the Vatican on Christmas Eve 1978 to a “young and vibrant” Pope John Paul II, just two months into his pontificate, Kevin McCoy has seemingly done the impossible for a Catholic kid from Jefferson.

He has served as a witness in Rome to the elections of three popes.

He has run his hand along the marble of Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” which most people have to be content to look at from 25 feet away, through a triple-layer glass shield, ever since a madman took a hammer to it in 1972.

“I’ve had some privileged moments,” McCoy said.

In his latest endeavor, as a member of what’s called “the diocesan curia,” McCoy again finds himself with a privileged vantage point.

“There are days I don’t know,” he countered with a warm chuckle.

Three years ago, McCoy was quietly appointed vicar general of the Sioux City Diocese by Bishop R. Walker Nickless, a role that makes him the highest administrative officer in the 24-county diocese and gives him the ability to stand in for the bishop himself when needed.

His new duties began just as the diocese undertook a strategic planning process with professional consultants known as Ministry 2025 — a process to reshape the diocese and its 108 parishes to match contemporary realities.

Rural depopulation, coupled with a critical shortage of priests, is chiefly why McCoy is working so hard these days, pastoring at two different churches in Fort Dodge, a city also home to a regional hospital and a state prison, both of which call frequently on the services of a priest.

For a time, the diocese was trying to operate eight churches in Webster County with just three priests.

It’s his role as one of two vicar generals in the diocese that has afforded McCoy an inside look at Ministry 2025, reviewing the proposed changes and providing feedback.

But until just two weeks ago, local Catholics in Grand Junction and Churdan were under the impression their parishes could be closed after this weekend, ending nearly a century and a half of tradition in Greene County.

“It’s been a living, walking thing,” McCoy said of the plan, which has changed multiple times, much to the frustration of parishioners, since being released in draft form in 2016.

Even the terminology has changed.

As of May, what was an oratory — a church without regular Mass — is now a “merged worship site,” and what was a worship site is now a “merged secondary church.”

“All of this stuff goes to Rome,” McCoy said of the wording.

On June 14, Bishop Nickless finally decreed that, effective Saturday, St. Columbkille in Churdan and St. Brigid in Grand Junction will remain available for weekend Mass as “merged secondary churches.”

However, they won’t be the same parishes that have served their communities for generations.

St. Columbkille and St. Brigid will be dissolved after this weekend as civil corporations and merged into St. Joseph in Jefferson, which has been assigned the status “canonical parish.”

Members of the two churches  will become members of St. Joseph, and all sacramental records, death records and items of historical or spiritual significance will be transferred to St. Joseph.

The buildings in Churdan and Grand Junction will be available for Mass, funerals and weddings only as long as they’re properly maintained by local parishioners.

McCoy understands the frustration.

“Human beings don’t fundamentally like change,” he said. “That can be upsetting.”

Still, there’s no getting around the fact that, by 2025, the diocese expects to only have 31 available priests across its huge swath of northwest Iowa.

But as one parishioner in Churdan explained this past spring, when it still appeared St. Columbkille would close for good after June 30, three decades of stretching priests thin has only exacerbated the shortage.

“For 30 years,” he said, “young men have seen people who are overworked and underappreciated. That takes a hell of a calling to overcome that.”

While perhaps painful in the short term for smaller communities, the hope is that Ministry 2025 will take half-empty churches and create more vibrant parishes.

“We have to think of some different ways to do things,” McCoy said.

“My grandfather ran a livery in Emmetsburg,” he added. “How many liveries are there left? And he had a family of 15 children.”

Of popes and Popeyes

It’s true that time waits for no one.

“If you were to look back at the Greene County of 50 years ago, you would see a much different Greene County than the one you’re seeing today,” McCoy explained, pointing to lost retail. “The stories aren’t all that different as you cross lines.”

When McCoy was ordained in the diocese, Webster County still had priests in places like Dayton, Moorland, Clare, Barnum and Duncombe, just as there were priests serving Scranton and Paton in Greene County.

Not quite 40 years later, McCoy intends to oversee construction in Fort Dodge of a single Catholic church for all of Webster County, a county four times the size of Greene County.

“God willing and the bids come in right,” he joked.

Many have interpreted Ministry 2025 as a building plan when it should be a spiritual one, according to McCoy.

“They’re fighting for the wrong thing,” he said. “It’s the heavenly Jerusalem we aspire to. It’s not the brick and mortar of here and today.”

Holy communion tomorrow may not be in the same place it is today — a notion rural Iowans should be familiar with.

McCoy knows a Webster County family who thinks nothing of driving clear to Des Moines just to eat at Popeyes, the fast-food chicken place.

“If the body and blood of the Lord is only available in Fort Dodge, and I’m 11 miles away, don’t I want to go those 11 miles to get that nourishment?” he asked. “Yeah, I still wish it was just across the street.”

To think — McCoy could have ended up calling balls and strikes for a living.

A graduate of the Al Somers Umpire School in Daytona Beach, Fla., McCoy eventually had to come to terms with the fact he’d never find work in professional baseball for the simple fact that he wore glasses.

Ironic, right?

After all, what’s the first thing people yell at the ump after a bad call?

Yeah. Get some glasses.

Asking questions on his way into Loras College in Dubuque, he came out destined for the priesthood.

Forty years ago, as a seminary student at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, he was able to attend the 1978 funeral of Pope Paul VI at St. Peter’s Basilica after an American monsignor working in the Vatican diplomatic corps gave him an admission ticket.

Unbelievably, the ushers kept directing him closer and closer and closer until he was finally on the platform holding the altar and the papal coffin.

A wide-eyed McCoy ended up taking his seat directly behind the heads of state.

“It was an incredible perspective from which to participate in Paul VI’s funeral,” he said. “So you can imagine my utter amazement at being given this rather privileged position.

“Of course, I had no idea where I would be seated when the monsignor gave me that ticket. I was just grateful for his kindness in providing for my access to St. Peter’s Square. I presumed I would be at the outer ring of Bernini’s colonnade.”

The first pontiff to ever visit the Western Hemisphere — celebrating Mass on Oct. 4, 1965, before a crowd of more than 90,000 from an altar at second base of Yankee Stadium — Paul VI is now set to be canonized as a saint on Oct. 14.

The pontificate of Paul VI eventually pit the Holy See against the Summer of Love.

His stand in the late ’60s against artificial birth control, and his stances on celibacy for priests and the possible ordination of female priests (the concept of which he called unthinkable), have reverberated ever since.

The summer of 1978 saw the elections of two popes in short order.

The papacy of Pope John Paul I began on Aug. 26 and ended with his death after just 32 days.

Pope John Paul II followed, the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.

McCoy was prepping for final exams on May 13, 1981, when John Paul II was shot in St. Peter’s Square.

“The whole tenor of the city really changed,” McCoy recalled. “To me, it was unheard of.”

The pope survived his assassination attempt, and famously met with the gunman in prison in 1983.

That incident — then, later on, the events of Sept. 11, 2001 — means visitors to the Basilica, a structure built in the year 1615, now have to pass through metal detectors, McCoy said.

By the early ’00s, McCoy was back in Rome, serving as rector of the Pontifical North American College, the seminary established in 1859 by Pope Pius IX for priest candidates from the U.S.

During his time as head of the college, John Paul II died and was succeeded by Pope Benedict XVI.

When his tenure at the seminary concluded in 2006, McCoy returned to the U.S. to become the face of a capital campaign, raising $28 million for renovations to the college.

“He’s got quite a resume,” brother Tim McCoy said.

As kids, they all looked up to an uncle, Al McCoy, who was a priest.

Father Al — who had been named for Al Smith, the first Catholic to ever run for president — set the bar high, becoming a beloved priest in the Sioux City Diocese, at one time even serving as the mayor of Cherokee and then president of Bishop Heelan High School in Sioux City in the late ’90s.

It was Father Al who baptized Kevin and his twin brother Mark in 1954, the first baptisms he would conduct over the next 58 years in the priesthood.

Time flies when you’re caring for souls — Monsignor Kevin McCoy will now be eligible for retirement himself in 2024.

“He’s got a heavy workload right now,” Tim McCoy observed. “I guess it’s a sign of the times.”

But if there’s one person who can handle it, it’s Monsignor Kevin McCoy.

Tim McCoy has been to fish frys and other social functions in Fort Dodge, and if the monsignor is overworked and underappreciated, it doesn’t show.

“He always has a big smile,” Tim McCoy said. “And he remembers their names.

“That’s amazing to me.”

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