Faith, dedication are necessities for ministry at St. Cecilia

Lynn Nicholson, Sharon Robinson and Jerry Saracini admire the statue of Mary donated by Nicholson's grandmother at St. Cecilia Church in Newport.
Lynn Nicholson, Sharon Robinson and Jerry Saracini admire the statue of Mary donated by Nicholson's grandmother at St. Cecilia Church in Newport.

NEWPORT — Without the tender, loving care of her parishioners, St. Cecilia Church in Newport would be an empty shell.
Instead, the dedicated parishioners at the small parish keep the church alive and running smoothly for Father Phillip Reaves, who is also pastor at St. Mary Church in Batesville.
“We feel blessed to have a priest, with the priest shortage, and we’re such a small parish,” said Sharon Robinson, who serves on the parish council and is church secretary. “We try to do as much as we can to make it easy for the priest, so he can come in and administer the sacraments, which we can’t do.”
Parishioners are grateful, Robinson said, for all the priests who have served at St. Cecilia over the years.

St. Cecilia Church
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“It makes you more appreciative when the priest goes out of his way to be there,” said Jerry Saracini, parish council member, lector and business assistant for the church. “We’re so thankful for our pastor and deacon.”
The small parish is attended by St. Mary, but it wasn’t always that way. For many years, St. Cecilia oversaw the church in Batesville.
“Batesville grew and Newport didn’t. Now we’re the mission church,” said Lynn Nicholson, who grew up in Newport and now serves on the parish council and as extraordinary minister of holy Communion.
The original church in Newport was built in 1896, as the Church of St. John the Evangelist. When the white, wooden church with a steeple burned to the ground in the Newport fire of 1926, the parishioners were determined to rebuild. In the meantime, services were held in the Schratz Laundry until a new church could be built.
St. Cecilia rose from those ashes of St. John, as a native stone church and rectory dedicated in 1935.
The stone church also was the victim of fire in 1952, which destroyed the roof and interior of the church. Parishioners saved the brass tabernacle and Blessed Sacrament from the flames. The stone structure held and was rebuilt in 1953.
In 1994, St. Cecilia moved to a new location in Newport. The little stone church is now a daycare center
The new brick church features the original church’s round stained glass window of St. Cecilia, given in memory of C.J. Saenger. Saenger was one of the parishioners who raised $1,000 to build the original St. John Church in Newport, $500 of which was his own money. A man identified as Mr. Hurley donated the land for the church.
The new St. Cecilia Church also has the 40-foot bell tower from the original location. It was constructed in 1960 in memory of Edward Baum and brought to the new church. It electronically tolls the bells approximately every 15 minutes.
Mary Balch, Nicholson’s mother, said her parents helped build St. Cecilia after the original St. John in Newport burned.
“My grandparents, Ollie and Gladys Schratz, helped build the church. I can go there today and see statues that they donated and it makes it more special for me,” Nicholson said. “My kids were baptized there. My mother and I were both married there. It is a part of our lives.”
St. Cecilia was a part of the family for Balch, as her mother played the organ, her father took up the collection and her brother served at Mass. Later, Balch herself would be organist for the church for more than 25 years.
“Everything about my life — my whole life — just everything to me was my St. Cecilia’s. This has been my parish all my life. My whole life was centered around the church.”
The presence of St. Cecilia is a milestone for Catholics in the Newport area, especially those who can’t travel to other parishes.
“There are folks like my mom who are elderly. If we didn’t have Mass here, they wouldn’t be able to go elsewhere,” Robinson said. “We’re so blessed.”
All ministries in the parish exist solely because of volunteers.
“Everybody brings their own talents to the table and we make it work,” Robinson said.
Robinson’s husband, David, crafted the back altar, cover for the tabernacle and other pieces of carpentry work for the church. Volunteers help with maintenance and ground upkeep, decorating for special days and gardening, along with the regular daily parish business.
An annual parish clean-up day draws a good crowd from the parish and community. It is a good day for fellowship and a fish fry, Robinson said.
The volunteer spirit also reinforces the family-like atmosphere of St. Cecilia.
“We’re a very small parish, but we survive. We’re self-sufficient mostly and we’re very fortunate to have this community here,” Saracini said of the 50-member congregation.
When he came to Newport 38 years ago, Saracini came from a large parish. Now, the small parish feels like home.
“It was quite a shock coming from Christ the King (in Little Rock) to St. Cecilia. But it’s been a good fit for me and my family,” he said.
The small community is also a positive for Balch, because it helps parishioners develop lasting relationships.
“We all know each other and are concerned about each other. When you walk out of church, someone will ask about you and your family. Everyone knows everybody’s family. It’s a closeness that is special,” she said.
And for Balch and Nicholson, the history of St. Cecilia is tied to their family tradition.
“It means a lot to me. Every Sunday, I sit by Lynn and can reach out and touch her hand,” Balch said “My family is here past, present and always.”

St. Cecilia Church
Location: 2745 Galeria Dr., Newport
Established: 1935 (1896, as the former Church of St. John the Evangelist)
Attended by: St. Mary Church, Batesville
Mass: 11 a.m. Sundays; 5:30 p.m. Thursdays
Sacramental Life: Confessions before Mass; adoration on Wednesdays
Ministries: Religious education for children and adults, prison outreach, elderly and sick outreach, community health clinic partnership

Click here to see the index of stories in Arkansas Catholic’s small parish series.

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