The Roman Catholic Diocese of Joliet covers seven counties and 4,218 square miles. It serves 616,819 Catholics in 192,272 households.
The far southern end of the diocese is comprised of Iroquois and Ford counties. While hardly its population center, Bishop Daniel Conlon, the leader of the diocese, said this area holds equal priority with him, and he has backed those words with his actions.
“The parishes here are smaller, rural,” Conlon said. “Parishioners sometimes feel isolated from the rest of the diocese. I want people to understand they are just as important to me as anyone else in the Diocese of Joliet.”
To reinforce that belief, Conlon has been celebrating Mass and visiting parishioners in Iroquois and Ford counties since the end of June. He will continue to do so through Thursday.
“When I last visited here (Iroquois County) in May, it occurred to me I could spend more time here,” said Conlon, who was named bishop by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011.
The diocese, which includes Kankakee, Iroquois, Ford, Will, DuPage, Grundy and Kendall counties, has 124 parishes and 115 active priests.
Conlon recently finished a six-year project to visit each parish in the Joliet Diocese, one weekend at a time. He visited each church, saying a Mass over the weekend. Conlon also visited students and teachers at parishes with schools.
“It was a full schedule of events at each parish,” said Conlon in reference to his six years of visits.
When his six-year project ended, his schedule allowed him to “set up shop” at Assumption BVM rectory in Ashkum. Conlon is no stranger to rural congregations. Before becoming a bishop, Conlon served as a priest for 25 years in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Ohio, his hometown. Six of those years were spent in a rural congregation.
“I want to be able to relate to people as if I were their parish priest. I was called to the priesthood as a youngster,” he said. “I never imagined being a bishop. I relish seeing myself in the role of church pastor. I want to be present and available to the people here.”
With Conlon celebrating Masses at the 12 parishes in Iroquois and Ford counties, it allowed the four parish pastors, the Rev. Douglas Hauber, the Rev. Michael Powell, the Rev. Dong Van Bui and the Rev. Marek Herbut, an opportunity to visit their own hometowns, including Vietnam and Poland.
“I just want to be present and mingle with the people,” Conlon said. “I enjoy sitting and reading on the front porch of the rectory. People just come by and stop to chat.”
He’s had plenty of invitations to breakfast and lunch, youth group events and the like, keeping him busy during his stay. And he looked forward to the Iroquois County Fair this week to “pet a pig or two.” He’s also held services and visited residents at local nursing homes and even visited a prisoner at Centralia Correctional Center.
On Wednesday, Conlon celebrated morning Mass at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Clifton. In Clifton, the bishop also interacted with children on their last day of Vacation Bible School, enjoying a hot dog and chip luncheon. He also visited with parish members.
“It’s nice for kids to see the bishop on a regular everyday level. It’s good he’s here among the people getting to know the parishioners,” said St. Peter’s parishioner Becky Kirkpatrick.
The bishop arrived in late June but spent part of the Fourth of July holiday weekend in his hometown of Cincinnati. The reason for his visit home – to check in on his 95-year-old father who recently moved into an assisted living facility and to take in a couple of Reds baseball games.
Back in Illinois, he had this to say during an interview: “Right now, I’m sitting on the porch (as sounds of the train whistle are heard in the background), wearing a short-sleeved clerical shirt and sneakers. It’s definitely not my normal attire.”
Conlon’s schedule for the coming weeks includes: 5 p.m., tonight, St. Edmund, Watseka; 7:30 and 10:30 a.m., Sunday St. Edmund, Wasteka; 9 a.m., Sunday, St. Joseph Mission, Crescent City; 8 a.m., Monday, St. Mary’s, Paxton; 6 p.m., Tuesday, Immaculate Conception, Gilman; 8 a.m., Wednesday, Our Lady of Lourdes, Gibson City; and 5:30 p.m., Thursday, St. Joseph, Loda.