An Omaha Catholic parish with deep roots in the city has received a $10 million donation — one of the largest ever given a local parish — that it plans to use to build a bigger church for its large, growing congregation.
The donation to St. Wenceslaus Church specifies it must be used to build a new church, said the Rev. Tom Bauwens, pastor. He said the gift is from Wayne and the late Eileen Ryan, longtime financial supporters of local Catholic institutions such as Creighton University and Mercy High School.
“The congregation is grateful,’’ Bauwens said. “We realize this is a life-changer.”
St. Wenceslaus, near 152nd and Pacific Streets, is one of the largest congregations in the Omaha Archdiocese and runs one of its biggest grade schools. The current church opened in 1984, but the parish was founded as a Czech congregation more than 135 years ago and was originally located at 14th and Pine Streets.
Tim McNeil, spokesman for the archdiocese, said archdiocese officials support the parish’s desire for a bigger church.
“The need is there,’’ he said. “The population continues to grow.”
Bauwens said the new church would seat 1,400, compared with about 850 at the current one.
He said St. Wenceslaus hopes to break ground on the new church in summer 2017 with completion in two years.
The new church would be built on vacant land east of the current church. Bauwens said the parish does not own the site and is negotiating the purchase.
The existing church would be converted into a parish center with meeting rooms and would be attached to the new church by an atrium, he said. Bauwens said the parish currently does not have suitable space for such events as wedding receptions and lectures, and does not have enough meeting space.
Bauwens said the parish has received rough estimates showing the donation from the Ryans would cover the cost of the new church. Once the new church opens, fundraising would start to cover the cost of converting the existing church into a parish center.
Wayne Ryan was a professor at Creighton and the University of Nebraska before founding Streck Laboratories in 1971.
Bauwens said he has been close friends with the Ryans for 26 years. He said he got to know them when he was a young priest at Mary Our Queen Church.
He recalled that Eileen Ryan, who died in 2013 at age 84, liked his homilies. A friendship with the couple developed from there.
Bauwens said that although the Ryans are not members of St. Wenceslaus, Eileen Ryan attended daily Mass at the church for years and would say the rosary afterward.
Stacy Ryan, daughter of Eileen and Wayne Ryan, said her mother was a devout Catholic and so is her father. Stacy Ryan said her mother considered Bauwens a son and wanted to do whatever she could to help him and the community.
Her parents, she said, are extremely generous. “They know they are blessed and use their blessings to help the community.”
Projects the couple has funded or helped to fund include a surgical simulation suite that opened 2013 at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and is named for them. They donated $1 million for the project.
In 2009, Creighton University dedicated the $19 million Wayne and Eileen Ryan Athletic Center and D.J. Sokol Arena, home to women’s volleyball and basketball.
A remodeled plaza and entrance completed in 2008 at Omaha Mercy High School carries the Eileen Krebs Ryan name. She graduated from St. Mary High School in Omaha, a predecessor of Mercy. Her $550,000 gift to fund the entire project was the largest donation from an individual in the school’s history.
Stacy Ryan said her parents supported other Omaha Catholic high schools including Creighton Prep, Skutt and Duchesne Academy. Some gifts were made through the Ryan Foundation, she said, and others were directly from her parents.
Bauwens said St. Wenceslaus received its donation before Eileen Ryan’s death two years ago. He said that while many in the congregation already know about the gift, he plans to make an official announcement during Masses this weekend. He said the parish also will announce the public phase of a capital campaign.
The parish hopes to raise $7 million, to build offices for the new church, a six-classroom addition for the grade school and other projects. The money also would be used to create an endowment to cover operating costs of the new church.
Bauwens said the Ryans were aware of the parish’s need for a bigger church.
St. Wenceslaus has 2,970 household members, up 15 percent from a decade ago. The church draws as many as 3,900 people across its seven weekend Masses, Bauwens said.
Several Masses are standing-room-only, he said. St. Wenceslaus added a Sunday evening Mass 2½ years ago because of the big crowds.
Other parishes in west Omaha and Sarpy County are growing, prompting a study launched this year by the archdiocese examining the possibility of opening additional churches and schools in the future.
McNeil said construction of a bigger church for St. Wenceslaus and a grade school addition would not affect the potential need for additional churches and schools in growing areas.
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