Father Mark leaves Little Falls with fond memories and great love

After 11 years, Our Lady of Lourdes pastor heads south to St. Cloud area

By Terry Lehrke, News Editor
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Father Mark Innocenti will leave Our Lady of Lourdes Church June 26, in Little Falls after 11 years of service. He will begin pastoral duties at St. Michael’s Church in St. Cloud and St. Joseph’s Church in Waite Park, assisted by newly-ordained Father Joseph Backowski of Belle Prairie.

It’s a year earlier than perhaps it might have been, as the full term of a Catholic priest in one parish is usually done on a 12-year basis.

But, as one pastor retired, Father Mark Innocenti was needed elsewhere, and when the Bishop of the Diocese of St. Cloud, John F. Kinney, called, Father Mark told his parishioners he had to say “Yes.”

So, on June 26, at noon, after 11 years, Father Mark will leave Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Little Falls, to head south. There he will assume duties as pastor of the Church of St. Michael in St. Cloud and the Church of St. Joseph in Waite Park. He will also help with the All Saints Academy school.

Newly-ordained Father Joseph Backowski of Belle Prairie received his first assignment as a priest — to assist Father Mark as parochial vicar for the parishes.

Being a priest is a second career for Father Mark, who was ordained 13 years ago at age 41.

He grew up in Roseville, a suburb of St. Paul, and moved to St. Cloud in the late 1980s and worked at Bankers Systems.

He said he had a conversion experience. “I never thought about being a priest, but people used to suggest, ‘Why don’t you become a priest.’ I didn’t think it would be for me, but I started asking, ‘Lord are you asking me to be a priest?’ … everything kept pointing to being a priest,” he said.

He quit his job when he was accepted to study in the diocese, and went into the seminary. He went through eight years of schooling in six years and was ordained.

He said it’s been fulfilling in many different ways. “I could have done a lot of other things in my life,” he said.

At first his parents and his siblings “thought I was crazy to put it bluntly,” he said.

But eventually they were happy as they saw things working well for him. “My mom, she wanted me to be the Pope then when she saw it was going to be OK,” he said.

Some of the highlights of his years in Little Falls are the bi-annual trips to Guatemala, taking groups of parishioners with him. He said he’s proud of that outreach and supporting very poor people in Guatemala, helping them get an education and proper food and housing and medical. He has also seen how the trips have influenced those who went with him. “Their conversion of heart as they see Jesus in the face of those poor people is very rewarding,” he said.

As one of the founding fathers of the Boys and Girls Club in Little Falls he has found reward in being a part of the Club from its very start as well as, “Our parish’s help and support of that, which we still do today,” he said.

The perpetual adoration chapel at the John Paul II Center he called “beautiful.”

“It was started by parishioners here. I just gave the approval. I am so pleased with that effort and that has really taken root,” he said. Perpetual adoration is the uninterrupted adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

A fun time of year for Father Mark is the parish festival, held each July for as long as anyone can remember in the church’s 90-year history. “How that comes together is just a sign of the welcoming and fun nature of the parish. It is fun for me to be able to share some music with people with ‘Father Mark and the Angels.’” He plays drums.

Now it won’t be “Father Mark and the Angels,” it will just be “The Angels,” he said.

“We have very talented people here. Music is something that has a great foundation here.” He said the parish is blessed with seven different choirs. “They take ownership of what they do and do such a good job,” he said.

“Holy Family Church has been equally rewarding and being the associate there I have grown to really appreciate those people and seen their commitment to faith and they too have been a big part of going to Guatemala with me.”

Father Mark also puts together bi-annual fishing trips for kids and families. “I’ve been doing that since I’ve been here — taking groups fishing in the spring and in the fall.” He was once a fishing guide in British Columbia, when he fished eight hours a day all summer long.

“Now I like to see those kids and families with their kids.” Seeing the kids catch a five pound walleye is much more fun for him these days than catching his own.

He enjoys cooking in his spare time, and having Guatemalan coffee beans roasted locally for resale to benefit the school. The coffee beans are picked by the groups he’s taken to Guatemala, side by side with the farmers. The coffee beans are purchased from the farmers, shipped to Little Falls, and Mark Norgren of Reality Roasters roasts them.

“It’s fair trade at its best,” he said.

The proceeds from the sales go for tuition assistance at the school. To-date, about $30,000 has been donated from the coffee sales.

“I’m going to miss the people. They were very welcoming when I came here and have been very generous in many ways. I have great respect for the people here and their desire to serve and to be good stewards of God’s gifts, in loving God and loving neighbor,” he said.

“People here are beautiful and their faith is beautiful, the way they care for each other, the way they care for the church. That’s probably what I will miss the most, is just the people.”

Father Mark said he appreciated, “The many wonderful people who have volunteered to help keep the church beautiful in many different ways.”

“Almost every place you look around here in some way there has been volunteer help to keep it up. It goes back 90 years; people still talk about their great-great-grandfather who worked on building the church. Look at the craftsmanship of the church, it’s unbelievable, they just don’t build things like this anymore,” he said.

“But yet, that spirit is still here with the people who pitch in, always ready to help when something arises … and I really appreciate that.”

An open house for Father Mark will be held Sunday, June 24, following the 10:30 a.m. Mass, at Mary of Lourdes Middle School, from noon – 2 p.m. Grilled hamburgers and hot dogs with all the fixings will be available.

“Everyone from the community is invited,” said Father Mark.

Father Joseph Herzing will leave Holy Cross in Butler and the St. Henry Church in Perham to take Father Mark’s place in the community.