CHAMPAIGN — A priest who has shepherded the largest Catholic parish in Champaign for nearly a decade is leaving to head a Catholic high school in Peoria.
Monsignor Mark Merdian, pastor at St. Matthew Catholic Church since 2003, has been reassigned as president of Notre Dame Catholic High School in Peoria, effective June 27.
He will be replaced by the Rev. Robert Rayson, now pastor of LaSalle Catholic Churches.
Merdian, 45, has a long history at St. Matthew's, where he was assistant pastor for four years after being ordained a priest in 1993. He returned as pastor in 2003.
"I love this parish. It's really my home," Merdian said Wednesday. "It's hard. For a priest, the parish is his family."
But he is also returning to his roots. Born in Peoria, he grew up in Chillicothe and still has family there. He also worked in Peoria in between Champaign assignments, as an administrative assistant and vice chancellor under former Bishop John J. Myers in Peoria, and serving churches in Peoria, Metamora, Washburn, Roanoke and Benson.
St. Matthew parishioners, who were told the news the weekend of May 5-6, said Merdian will be a tough act to follow.
"When he announced it, you could hear the 'Oh no's' in the parish, and a few tears," said longtime trustee Doris Bermingham. "A lot of people were really upset and still are. He's made so many good friends and brought so much peace to a lot of families."
St. Matthew is the third-largest parish in the diocese, with about 1,800 families, and also has a school.
Bermingham said Merdian is an "outstanding spiritual leader" and connects with all segments of the parish — young and old.
"He just has this infectious way about him. He's never seen a stranger. If he's met you once, he remembers your name," she said.
As pastor, Merdian led St. Matthew in a major expansion, with construction of a new gym/auditorium and a parish center connecting the church and school.
He was also able to re-establish a group for young singles that he had started as assistant pastor and started several men's groups, an Elizabeth ministry for pregnancies and related issues, and a bereavement support group.
He also tried to better unite the parish with families whose children attend St. Matthew School.
Principal Petrece Klein, who is also a parishioner, said Merdian relates well to students, teaching classes every Thursday, saying Mass and occasionally joining them for lunch or roller-skating. He knows every student's name (at least by second grade). Merdian said he loves interacting with students so they see him as a teacher, not just someone who celebrates Mass.
"He's so fun for the students, and yet he's always sending them such a positive message," Klein said. "He's personable, and he has vision, and he has leadership. He challenges those around him to be at their best."
She said those qualities will be helpful at Notre Dame, which is raising money for a new $40 million school on the outskirts of Peoria.
"He knows what needs to be done," Klein said. "People trust him and they're willing to follow him just because he's a strong individual."
Notre Dame, now on the northwest side of the city, has about 800 students. Merdian attended Spalding/Academy of Our Lady, a co-ed school that later merged with Bergan High School to form Notre Dame. He will be the first full-time "president" of the high school, sort of a chief executive officer to the school principal who runs day-to-day operations. It's a model commonly used at religious schools in the East, Merdian said.
The retiring president, the Rev. William Watson, was also pastor of one of the diocese's biggest parishes, St. Philomena, where Merdian will live and share some pastoral duties.
"Our loss is certainly Notre Dame's gain," Bermingham said.
Merdian is St. Matthew's sixth pastor, succeeding the Rev. Anthony Trosley.
Merdian said he will miss the students, from kindergarten through high school, as well as the families of the "very vibrant" parish. But he said the transition to the new pastor should be fairly seamless.
Rayson, 43, who is entering his 14th year as a priest, has been pastor at LaSalle for six years. He oversees four parishes — St. Hyacinth, St. Patrick and the Shrine Queen of the Holy Rosary in LaSalle, as well as St. Thomas More parish in Dalzell. LaSalle also has a K-8 school, Trinity Catholic Academy. And he is director of continuing education for priests in the diocese.
From 2001 to 2006 he was pastor for three parishes — St. Dominic in Wyoming, St. Patrick in Camp Grove and St. John the Baptist in Bradford — and before that he was assistant pastor for two years at Sacred Heart Church in Moline.
He attended Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis but as a Chicagoland native remains a "staunch" Chicago Cubs fan.
"I know I'm going to Cardinals territory," he said.
In Champaign, he will also oversee St. Boniface in Seymour, where Merdian has served as pastor since Msgr. Albert Hallin became ill. Hallin's parish in Ivesdale, St. Joseph, will be assigned to St. Patrick in Tolono, Merdian said.
Rayson, who knows Merdian, said he has visited Champaign-Urbana several times and is excited about his new assignment.
"I'm humbled that the bishop has entrusted one of our largest parishes to my pastoral care," Rayson said. "I come in this spirit, that a shepherd loves his sheep. ... I want to get to know the people, I want to spend time with them, and I want to get to know the parish in the best way I can serve them."