"Survive and thrive."
Deacon Gary DiLallo adopted that phrase as his personal motto when he arrived in Auburn in 2009 as pastoral administrator of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Hyacinth parishes. The two parishes had been clustered for several years, but many parishioners were convinced the new pastoral leader had been sent to close one of their churches, Deacon DiLallo recalled.
"I fought (that notion) for the longest time, for my first three years. I had no intention of closing anything, but helping it survive and thrive. I’m thinking long term," he said.
The best way to ensure the long-term viability of both parishes was to combine them into a single new parish, a process that is nearly complete. In June it was decreed that the two parishes would come together as one parish, known as Ss. Mary and Martha Parish. The parish still is waiting for the legal details of the merger to be finalized, probably sometime this fall, said Patricia Tamburrino, business manager.
In a time when declining priest availability has forced Catholics to think creatively, this merger likely will benefit people from both St. Hyacinth and St. Francis, according to longtime St. Hyacinth parishioner Jim Dacey.
"As we moved through the process, I felt that from a financial standpoint it would give us greater strength in both parishioners and assets," said Dacey, who — as chairman of St. Hyacinth’s finance committee — has been involved in the parishes’ clustering process from the beginning. "I believe that this process has and will strengthen our position in the Auburn Catholic Community. We have two strong ethnic communities who work very well together, making our church a very vibrant entity in that community."
St. Hyacinth has had a strong Polish population, while St. Francis has had a large Italian contingent. Each parish community is tightly knit, but that hasn’t impeded the amalgamation process, Deacon DiLallo said. St. Francis and St. Hyacinth celebrated a special Unity Mass last year, and the new parish plans to do so again this fall, he said.
"Both churches are full of strong values and rich in their traditions, which they can easily share with one another," said Theresa Casper-Klock, chair of St. Francis’ finance committee.
Casper-Klock said she was motivated to be part of the transition team because she had already experienced two church closings before her family joined St. Francis 10 years ago.
"St. Francis and St. Hyacinth are both pretty small," Casper-Klock said. "I wanted to do all I could to help not have either church suffer the same fate (of being closed)."
Casper-Klock, Dacey and a team of six other parishioners helped facilitate the merger by conducting town hall meetings to gather input from their fellow parishioners and trying to make the process as transparent as possible, Casper-Klock said. Some parishioners still griped, but the team had expected a certain amount of resistance to change, she and Dacey noted.
"Through group discussion and (the) listening process, all the questions were answered, and I believe that it was a very good transition process," Dacey remarked.
St. Hyacinth and St. Francis began sharing some of their resources in 2005 when they were officially clustered, Tamburrino said. The parish councils and social ministries eventually combined, as did the faith-formation program. The children involved in the faith-formation programs have blended together so seamlessly that it’s impossible to tell which parish the children are from without looking at their registration forms, said Jenn Owens, faith-formation director. The merger also has already benefitted many busy young families, who now have more options when it comes to Mass times and locations, she noted.
"I think that the majority are happy with the merger and look forward to a stronger faith community," Dacey added.
Many parishioners had been hoping their new parish would be named after Blessed John Paul II, especially given St. Hyacinth’s Polish heritage, he said. Nonetheless, the diocese’s decision to name the parish after sisters Mary and Martha may have been a blessing in disguise, Casper-Klock added.
"I make it analogous to my own situation inasmuch as I have a sister, too. While my sister and I have our own strengths and weaknesses, we have the same parents whom we both love and respect," she said. "Similarly, Ss. Francis and Hyacinth have their own strengths and weaknesses, but share the same love of the Father. Somehow in a strong family everything works out for the best."