Major changes in the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge and a gathering of thousands from various denominations were among the top stories of 2017 in the Baton Rouge-area faith community.

Citing a shortage of priests, financial challenges and other factors, the diocese in July implemented a widespread plan that included closing some churches, merging others and reducing the number of Masses.

One of the key decisions was the merger of St. Louis King of France with St. Thomas More at the end of November. St. Louis King of France School will close at the end of the school year.

In late May, St. Pius X Parish in north Baton Rouge, after more than 53 years in the diocese, was merged with St. Isidore the Farmer Parish, just 4 miles away in Baker. The St. Pius building was turned over to the diocese’s Hispanic Apostolate Ministry, which had shared the facilities with St. Pius.

At the other end of the spectrum, St. George Catholic Church began services in its new $17 million sanctuary on March 5. The new, larger church is home to the parish's 3,000 families and seats 350 people. St. George, just off Siegen Lane, began in 1908.

Other big news from the diocese came in mid-December with the announcement of Bishop Robert W. Muench's impending resignation from the office of bishop of Baton Rouge. A diocese official said canon law calls for a bishop to resign and retire upon his 75th birthday. Muench has submitted his resignation to Pope Francis. When the pope accepts the letter, Muench's retirement will become effective, but the official said, "it is impossible to predict how long this process will take."

Believers gathering

The year got off to a rousing start in the faith community with an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 worshippers attending the Believers of Baton Rouge gathering on Jan. 26 at the Raising Cane's River Center.

The event included powerful prayers, a diverse choir and the inspiring message of Tony Evans, a nationally renown pastor of a megachurch in Dallas.

The purpose of the Believers in Baton Rouge event was to get people involved and bring awareness to the efforts of pastors of different denominations and races to bridge the city's racial divide following 2016's summer of racial tension.

"It was an unbelievable thing. I've had some highs and lows in my (30 years of) ministry. This is the height of my ministry," said the Rev. René Brown, pastor of Mount Zion First Baptist Church and one of the lead organizers of the event.

Other top stories from faith-based community included: 

LOSS OF SPIRITUAL LEADER: Madhurendo Kumar, a leader in the Baton Rouge Hindu community, died Feb. 2 at age 75.

Kumar served as a priest at Hindu Samaj and the Hindu Vedic Society temples, in addition to his career as a geological and petroleum engineer and longtime director of the Geological Oil and Gas Division at the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources Office of Conservation.

HONORING THE SISTERS: St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church held a special Mass on Feb. 11 to honor the Sisters of the Holy Family.

The Mass was part of a yearlong celebration throughout the country for the Sisters of the Holy Family's 175th anniversary as a congregation.

The Sisters of the Holy Family congregation was founded in New Orleans in 1842 by Mother Henriette Delille, a free woman of color, to serve the youth, the elderly and the needy members of society. The Sisters came to Baton Rouge in 1881 and have been involved in educating the children of St. Francis Xavier School since the school's opening in 1920.

HOLY GRILL CELEBRATION: The Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge's Holy Grill program celebrated 30 years in March.

The Holy Grill program helps feed lunch to those in need in the Zion City area of Baton Rouge. The program celebrated its anniversary with a special gathering to thank volunteers and sponsors.

"It's a feeding program, but it's more than that," said the Rev. Robin McCullough-Bade, executive director of the Interfaith Federation, adding that 20 different congregations from throughout the community give to the program. "Volunteers will interact and listen to them, hear their stories," she said. "It's also a place of great kindness and acceptance."

Holy Grill coordinator Tonia Causey has been doing the cooking for the past 28 years.

NEW PASTOR AT BROADMOOR BAPTIST: Leonard Ezell was officially installed in early June as the pastor of Broadmoor Baptist Church.

A Paragould, Arkansas, native, Ezell came to Baton Rouge after eight years as the senior pastor at Northwest Baptist Church in Ardmore, Oklahoma.

"This is a wonderful church," Ezell said. "They're thoughtful, intentional, compassionate and a loving congregation."

CAMPHOR'S 100 YEARS: Camphor United Methodist Church celebrated its 100th anniversary with a special centennial service on June 25. The theme was "Celebrating 100 Years of God's Grace and Witnessing for Jesus Christ."

The church had its beginning as Taylors Methodist Episcopal Church in the home of Mary and James Bradford. After a couple of moves, the church moved in the 1920s to the current location on Scenic Highway and was renamed in memory of Bishop A.P. Camphor, a Louisiana-born cleric and missionary.

REFLECTING ON THE FLOOD: Area churches marked the anniversary of the flood of 2016 with special services.

On Aug. 13, hundreds of people attended East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's "A Time of Reflection" at Living Faith Christian Center. Attendees reflected on the new homes, rebuilt houses of worship and the goodness of God and humanity. First responders, clergy and political leaders shared stories of triumphs and low points over the past year.

That same day at Greenwell Springs Baptist Church, more than a dozen political leaders helped pray for continued recovery and praised the work of religious groups in offering aid to flood victims.

NEW TO THE FOUNDATION: Chris Spencer in September was named the development officer for the Baton Rouge-based United Methodist Foundation, where he will assist the state's 425 United Methodist churches with financial advisement, managing investments, guidance on capital campaigns and potential borrowing for new buildings. He'll also help with general plan giving for church members.

The United Methodist Foundation of Louisiana was founded in 1975. It is one of the largest United Methodist Foundations, with over $163 million in assets.

NEW MORMON LEADER: Ross Varner took over as president of the Louisiana Baton Rouge Mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in October.

As president of the Baton Rouge Mission, the Utah native oversees 165 Mormon missionaries in a region that covers south Louisiana to Alexandria and into Mississippi. The missionaries, most under 25, serving in Louisiana come from all over the United States, Canada, the Pacific islands and Australia. They serve 18 to 24 months.

MOODY REMEMBERED: The Rev. Mary Moody, who was active in many social issues and one of the first female ministers for the African Methodist Episcopal Church, died Oct. 28 at age 91.

Moody taught English and business education to visually impaired children for more than 30 years at the Louisiana State School for the Blind at Southern University.

CHANGE AT STAR HILL: The Rev. Lynwood C. Spell has been selected as the new pastor of Star Hill Church, replacing the Rev. Raymond Jetson. Spell will be installed as the church's fifth pastor at 10:47 a.m. Jan. 7.

Jetson, the former state legislator, pastored Star Hill for 23 years. In addition to his future role as pastor emeritus at Star Hill, Jetson said plans to become more active in MetroMorphosis, the nonprofit he founded in 2012.

Faith Matters run every over Saturday in The Advocate. Reach Terry Robinson at (225) 388-0238 or email