St. Clare Catholic Church now has over 130 families, but it was not always that way. Back in the late 1940’s there were fewer than ten Catholic Families in the whole of southern Madison County and there were few Catholic students attending Berea College. Catholics that lived in Berea had to travel to Richmond to attend Mass at St. Mark’s church. Not only that, there was little tolerance for Catholics in Berea and at the local College.
Mary Allshouse, a newcome to Berea in 1947 saw that there was a need for a church for Catholics in Berea. Reverend Oscar Poole, pastor of St. Mark in Richmond and Bishop William T. Mulloy of the Diocese of Covington agreed. Through Allshouse’s friendship with the new Catholic convert, Conneticut Congresswoman, Clare Boothe Luce, Luce agreed to donate money from a speaking tour to the building fund for a place of worship. Meanwhile, the Bill Watson and Charles Wagers families and the other parishioners sent out appeal letters for donations by the hundreds. People were very generous.
An old house was bought on Chestnut Street and converted into a chapel. Reverend Francis Walsh, a missionary Holy Ghost priest, celebrated the first Mass there on Sunday September 9, 1951. Reverend Walsh and then Reverend Ralph W. Beiting, the first diocesan pastor of St. Clare worked as much as the dedicated parishioners hammering, painting and later expanding the interior of the chapel as the church membership grew. The chapel was named in honor of Clare Boothe Luce’s patron saint. Ms. Luce continued to take a lively interest in the church throughout her lifetime and often gave donations to the church.
Those early years were not easy recalls oringial members Mary Watson and Isabelle (Issy) Wagers. They and their husbands would help to thaw out frozen water pipes in the winter when even the holy water froze. Coal had to be shoveled into a balky furnace and sometimes even the pastor would wear a coat to say Mass. A closet was used as a confessional and a Chinese checkboard was used as a confessional screen. For ten years faithful parishioners attended Mass at the chapel and membership grew despite the hardships.
In time enough money was collected to buy land next to the chapel and to build a church. Reverend Ralph W. Beiting and his large family from nothern Kentucky and local parishioners helped to build the church and on June 19, 1960 Bishop Richard B. Ackerman of the Diocese of Covington dedicated the new church. Rev. Beiting continued as pastor of the church and also served as pastor of St. William’s church in Lancaster. Later, St. Paul in McKee and Our Lady of Mount Vernon became mission churches also. The mission areas included southern Madison County, Jackson, Garrard and Rockcastle counties.
In 1950 the mission area was about 1,000 square miles and the population was about 45,000 people with only 40 Catholics in the entire region. During those early years when the parishes were young, Rev. Beiting initiated a volunteer program to help the needy in the large four county area. Later this would become the Christian Appalachian Project (CAP) which now serves over 35,000 people in 17 counties and indirectly serves 49 other counties and six states in the Appalachian area. It all began in 1954. Now there are 70 distict programs to serve the needy from pre-school to the elderly in aspects of health, education, economics and social services. For many years St. Clare benefitted from the help of CAP volunteers with the church and in outreach programs.
Nuns early on took the initiative to provide Christian education for the youth of the then mission territory. Victory Noll sisters from St. Mark came down regularly to St. Clare to give religious instructions. But before the chapel was established they often met in parishioners homes for classes. Several nuns from other orders have served St. Clare and the surrounding areas.
St. Clare was declared a parish on June 5, 1976 by Bishop Richard H. Ackerman. Rev. Wilfred Fraenzle was pastor of St. Clare at the time. Within the church parishioners have gained spiritual growth through participation in prayer groups, religious education classes, prayer chains, RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), daily communion services and also as volunteers for Hospice and Habitat for Humanity and helping with other community needs.
To stimulate a spirit of fellowship, potlucks, Seder meals, Christmas parties, and after Mass fellowship are enjoyed by all. Parishioners have taken an active role in the annual fundraising events to raise money for much needed church repair projects and renovations such as the recent renovation of the communtiy room and earlier of the religous education building which once housed the chapel. Money is raised by annual yard sales, Christmas Bazaars and annual appeal trips.
Currently, the Pastor of St. Clare oversees the mission churches of St. Paul in McKee and Our Lady of Mount Vernon in Mt. Vernon.
Looking back to St. Clare’s fragile beginnings we can truly say that we have grown as a virbrant church family and will continue to grow in the love of God by faith and commitment.