Faithful from across Montana made their way to Belgrade on March 26th to experience the incorrupt heart of the parish’s patron, St. John Vianney.
Normally enshrined in Ars, France where Vianney served, the holy relic is on pilgrimage across the United States under the guidance of the Knights of Columbus. The heart was available for public veneration at St. John Vianney parish through the afternoon, followed by Mass, confessions, and more time for prayer and veneration in the evening.
St. John Vianney was a parish priest in the village of Ars in the early 1800’s. During his life he faced great apathy and antagonism against the priesthood and the Church, but it was in this struggle that he poured his devotion and love. It is said that up to 300 pilgrims visited Vianney each day between 1830 and 1845. Through his work, pilgrims and the people of Ars returned to the Lord with a vibrant faith. He was known for spending 12-hour days in the confessional, and even took on part of the penances that he would give to his flock. After passing away in 1859, St. John Vianney was canonized in 1925 and his body was found to be incorruptible or preserved from decay. Today, he is recognized as the universal patron of parish priests.
“It’s an extraordinary sensation to think that he is here with us in a spiritual and physical way,” Fr. Eric Gilbaugh, pastor at St. John Vianney parish, said. “And it’s wonderful to see all the people who have come: children, parents, elders. It’s very gently beautiful the way that holiness draws us together.”
Parishioners and priests, both local and from various parts of the diocese, were in attendance. Additionally, students from St. Andrew’s Catholic School in Helena and Divine Mercy Academy in Belgrade came to learn more about St. John Vianney and experience the relic.
“It just blew me away to be in the presence of the heart of a man who really lived and ministered to so many. That’s the part of him that loved,” said one attendee, who came with a group from Ss. Cyril and Methodius parish in East Helena. “I felt an incredible gentleness and mercy, it was beautiful,” said another from the group.
“It was a very emotional and serene experience for me,” a parishioner of Resurrection parish in Bozeman said. “It was a good place to reflect and pray for the priests and for vocations, as well as that the world becomes a better place.”
Experiences like these impassioned the Knights of Columbus to shepherd the heart of St. John Vianney across the country. The relic first came to the U.S. for an international convention for the Knights in Baltimore in August 2018.
“It was there that the Supreme Knight asked the rector of the shrine in France if it could return to the U.S., entrusted to the Knights of Columbus, and travel throughout the country for the faithful to pray for priests, bishops, and renewal in the church,” said Peter Sonski.
Sonski, a Knight of 13 years, is the Education, Outreach, & Visitor Services Manager for the Knights of Columbus Museum in Connecticut and is one of three custodians of the relic on its American pilgrimage. Montana marks the 27th state for Sonski and the relic tour since early March.
“We’re all a part the larger Church, and the ambition is to bring the relic to the faithful where they are,” he said. “I’m so delighted that we could visit the Diocese of Helena, and that people here could have an intimate moment with the heart. It seems very appropriate that the patron should visit the parish of St. John Vianney.”
The parish in Belgrade couldn’t agree more. The Catholic community, formerly the Valley of the Flowers Mission, was rededicated in 2013 as St. John Vianney Parish.
Deacon Warner Holm, who has served the parish with his wife Patty since 2012, expanded on the relationship the parish has with the Saint. “It’s such an incredible opportunity for us. Father Gilbaugh has always been very close with St. John Vianney, from visiting the shrine in France to attending St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver. Throughout the years, our community also embraced and took on a great love for this Saint. It was the community that brought forward that name as we prepared to become a parish. He had truly become our patron. Now with him visiting us, it almost brings things full circle for Father and for our parish.”
“He is my favorite Saint,” Fr. Gilbaugh said. “This only reinforces the closeness I feel to him. I’ve been blessed to celebrate Mass in Ars at the shrine where the heart is usually located, and while it’s one thing to pilgrimage there, for him to make a pilgrimage to us is especially humbling. It’s like being visited by a good friend, but one that you’d be honored and humbled would visit you. For many to this point, St. John may have remained an idea, but I hope that the presence of his heart drives home for people that he was a real person just like us, and that they come to the conclusion that the Lord’s work in our lives today is no less real.”
The relic tour returned to Connecticut on April 1st with stops in New England and New York before returning to France later this spring.