Much has changed since Father Robert Kline, the founding pastor of St. John Vianney Parish in Mentor, celebrated the parish’s first Mass on Dec. 8, 1969 at Lake Elementary School. Two hundred chairs were set up, but 400 people came.
“And we’ve been growing ever since,” said Father Tom Johns, current pastor. The parish has about 4,000 families (about 10,000 people) today, he added. In the past half century, Father Johns said there have been 8,690 baptisms. The parish was created to serve the developing communities of Willoughby and Mentor. It shares a large parcel of diocesan-owned property with Lake Catholic High School, which opened in the fall of 1970. The high school and parish continue to have a close relationship.
During 1969 -- the year the parish was established -- the first Boeing 747 jumbo jet flew from Seattle, Washington to New York City. Other highlights included the death of former president Dwight Eisenhower; implantation of the first temporary artificial heart; the first two successful manned lunar landings and the Cuyahoga River catching fire. Richard Nixon was president and the Vietnam War was escalating, resulting in implementation of the first draft lottery since World War II.
As Mentor and the surrounding area grew, Father Johns said St. John Vianney also continued to grow. Over the years, the parish has seen four of its sons ordained to the priesthood, including – most recently – Father Matt Cortnik in 2018. Photos of priests from the parish are displayed in a hallway off the church, along with those of other vocations from the parish including religious sisters who hail from St. John Vianney.
The 50th anniversary year began with a Mass celebrated on Dec. 8, 2018 by Bishop emeritus Martin Amos of Davenport, Iowa. Bishop Amos, a son of the Cleveland Diocese, once served as a weekend associate at the parish. The ensuing year was filled with events planned by the anniversary committee, Father Johns said.
The yearlong celebration concluded on Dec. 22, when Bishop Nelson Perez celebrated Mass in a packed church. Members of the late Father Kline’s family were among those in attendance. The well-loved priest served 28 years as pastor and mentored Father Johns, even encouraging him to apply for the pastor’s position to replace him.
Concelebrants at the anniversary Mass included Father Johns; Father Peter Morris and Father Martin Dober, parochial vicars; Father Cortnik; priests from neighboring parishes and other clergy with ties to the parish such as former parochial vicars. Bishop emeritus Anthony Pilla, who dedicated the existing church in 2002, also was in attendance.
“Congratulations on 50 years. You look great,” Bishop Perez quipped as he greeted the congregation. The bishop noted that he was only 8 years old when the parish was established.
He told those assembled that “church” was happening in the area long before St. John Vianney Church was built. People and things -- like buildings -- come and go, he said, illustrating his point by noting the many popes buried in Rome and the number of churches there. “But we’ve done one thing faithfully for the past 2,000-plus years: celebrate the Eucharist.”
The bishop also remarked on the parish anniversary theme, “Celebrating God’s triumphs and graces,” and urged the parish community to embrace it.
“You exist to be an evangelizing community that reaches out. A church is a place from which we go. You go and proclaim to all the nations like Jesus instructed the apostles,” Bishop Perez said.
He told the congregation that the original apostles likely would not have been hired -- yet Jesus chose them. “And because of them, you are sitting here today in Mentor, Ohio. This parish and church are a place where people come and then are sent,” the bishop said. Pope Francis brought concepts of missionary and disciple together and changed the trajectory of the Church, he added.
The bishop said 75 to 80% of Catholics do not attend Sunday Mass. “It’s your job to help get them here,” he said. “This is not a club of members; it’s a community of mission.”
Father Johns thanked Bishop Pilla for being part of the anniversary celebration. “And thank you for appointing me as the second pastor in 1998 and for dedicating this church in 2002,” he said. The current church seats about 1,000 people, Father Johns said. After the new church was built, the old building was remodeled and is used for meeting rooms, offices and a chapel for daily Mass.
After the anniversary Mass, both Bishop Perez and Bishop Pilla – as well as many of the concelebrants – greeted the congregation in the gathering area. There also was a reception in the parish hall, which is named in honor of Father Kline, who died in 2011 at age 88.