On a quiet Sunday morning in Cooper, church parking lots spill over with cars and trucks. Dozens, maybe hundreds of people are indoors for their weekly worship at every church in town, save one.
On the square there are barely any cars parked at all. No shops are open yet, and no one is even milling around outside the building at the square’s northeast corner. The main reason, of course, is because St. Clare Catholic Church, which occupied the end building in a row of mainly retail outlets, held its final mass several weeks earlier than this particular cloudless Sunday morning.
Though, even if the mission were still in operation, you would be unlikely to find any evidence of a mass service happening so early on a Sunday anyway. And even if there were a mass going on right now, you’d be hard-pressed to find enough mass-goers to make a baseball team.
That, of course, was the reason St. Clare closed its doors in the first place. Even in a region like rural Northeast Texas, where Catholics are already in the overwhelming minority among Christians, St. Clare’s attendance was, charitably put, anemic.
Consider a comparison: At Our Lady of Victory in Paris, Fr. Anthony Stoeppel would say mass for 650 to 700 families. At St. Clare, he’d say mass for about 10 people. Stoeppel was the last priest to serve St. Clare. Though he says he enjoyed the church, he had to prioritize the parish at OLV. He would say masses in Paris, in English and Spanish, starting at 9 a.m. on Sundays before making his way down to Cooper. By the time he got to St. Clare, he says, it was usually after 2 p.m. Masses in Cooper would not typically start until at least 2:30, and not always on that schedule.
Lynn Morris, a resident of Ben Franklin and member of St. Clare, voices the frustration of the mission’s congregants:
“Despite having two priests in Paris, they couldn’t have mass at a reasonable time [in Cooper],” she says. “Sometimes it wasn’t until three in the afternoon. We were like the leftover kids.”
After a while, Morris says, St. Clare wasn’t getting any more Sunday services.
In order to keep the Eucharist at a Catholic church, there must be at least one mass said a week. Eventually, Morris says, Stoeppel would say a mass on Tuesdays (which didn’t count for Sunday service) during the day when few could attend anyway. As St. Clare was a mission of St. James Parish in Sulphur Springs, most St. Clare members long ago began driving to Hopkins County for Sunday mass.
Well before May 30, the day of St. Clare’s final mass, Stoeppel says that Bishop Joseph Strickland of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tyler decided St. Clare would have to close. Congregants sensed it was coming, but that didn’t take the sting out of it, Morris says.
“We were just devastated,” she says. “I felt pretty resentful.”
Like a lot of former congregants at St. Clare ‒‒ the true number of which is unavailable ‒‒ Morris splits her time between St. James and St. Joseph in Commerce. She used to be a member of St. Joseph when it was part of the Diocese of Tyler. But that church has been part of the Diocese of Dallas for a few decades, and Morris prefers to attend St. James.
“St. James has been wonderful in welcoming us,” she says. “A lot of us go there now.”
A few stalwarts make the trip to Paris every Sunday. But none are going there to see Fr. Stoeppel. He no longer says mass in Paris. Stoeppel is now a vicar general in Tyler, where he also teaches in one of the diocese’s grammar schools.
The building that housed St. Clare was returned to the diocese, and the building itself is in the process of being sold. To whom and for what are not being discussed publicly.
Both Stoeppel and Morris say they already miss St. Clare. And even if she did feel resentful when Bishop Strickland pulled the plug on the mission, Morris says she holds no ill will. She understands the business of numbers, even in matters of faith.
“This was a very beloved church,” she says. “[Taking it away] was like a divorce. It hurt, but I know he didn’t mean it to.”
Cindy Roller of KETR and the Cooper Review assisted with this article.