Many Catholics in Cayuga and Wayne counties have spent the first part of summer getting used to changes at their local parishes.
At the end of June, two new parish clusters were formed in Wayne County and one new cluster was formed in Cayuga County. Plans have been made for another cluster — or group of two or more parishes sharing the same pastoral leader — to be formed in Cayuga County when there is a change in the number of priests available to serve in that county.
In Wayne County, Newark’s St. Michael Parish came together with St. Joseph the Worker Parish (with worship sites in Lyons, Clyde and Savannah) and the Catholic Community of the Blessed Trinity (with worship sites in Wolcott, Red Creek and Fair Haven) to form one cluster.
The other cluster was formed by uniting St. Maximilian Kolbe — with worship sites in Ontario, Sodus and Sodus Point — with St. Katharine Drexel Parish, which has worship sites in Palmyra and Macedon. Both of these clusters took effect June 25.
In Cayuga County, the Auburn parishes of Holy Family, St. Alphonsus and Sacred Heart clustered with St. Ann in Owasco, also on June 25. In the future, the Auburn parishes of St. Mary and Ss. Mary and Martha are set to cluster with Our Lady of the Snow Parish, which has worship sites in Weedsport, Port Byron and Cato.
Clustering efforts in both counties were initiated in 2017 at the request of Bishop Salvatore R. Matano, who asked the pastors at the involved parishes to assemble pastoral-planning teams and, with the teams’ assistance, to assess the parishes’ ministerial and administrative needs while planning for future declines in the availability of priests.
This process of assessment and planning was necessary in order to ensure the vitality and well-being of the area’s faith communities in light of changing circumstances, Bishop Matano wrote in an October 2017 letter to the pastors of the five parishes in Wayne County.
“I am asking for this consultation to assure that this beautiful legacy of faith and devotion to Our Lord and the Church will continue into the future with the best possible use of our resources and having before our minds the motto of our first Bishop, Bishop Bernard J. McQuaid, ‘The Supreme Law is the salvation of souls,’” Bishop Matano wrote.
A declining number of priests available to serve local Catholics is one of several factors providing impetus for such consultation and clustering efforts, according to Karen Rinefierd, planning consultant with the Diocese of Rochester’s Department of Pastoral Services.
“Finances are driving and will drive some pieces in terms of future building situations. The other piece, which we forget about a lot of times, is just the changing demographics of parishioners. There are fewer people who come every week to Mass, and our most generous donors ordinarily are the oldest ones,” Rinefierd said.
“Especially in Wayne County, we’re seeing an aging population, and there are changes in the kinds of ministries that are needed and the kinds of sacraments that are celebrated, which is a nice way of saying we don’t have a lot of baptisms or weddings,” added Shannon Kilbridge, associate director of the diocesan Department of Pastoral Services.
Most of these factors are being felt throughout the Catholic Church in the United States, especially in the northeastern part of the country, added Kilbridge, who worked with the Wayne County pastoral-planning team, which she said was assembled and sprang into action soon after the pastors received Bishop Matano’s October 2017 letter. Along with assessing the Wayne County parishes’ needs and priorities, the planning team assembled information about the parishes’ current usage of buildings and projected capital-repair needs, while planning for a time when only be four priests would be available to serve Wayne County parishes.
The pastors of Cayuga County received a letter from Bishop Matano in February 2017, instructing them to undertake a similar process of evaluation and preparation, Rinefierd said. They were asked to prepare for a time when there would only be four priests to serve their parishes instead of the six who were serving at the time, said Rinefierd, who worked with the planning team in Auburn and northern Cayuga County.
The members of both planning teams worked hard to figure out which configurations would best meet the needs of local Catholics as well as the priests who would be ministering to them, Kilbridge and Rinefierd said. The teams evaluated every possible configuration of parish clusters before compiling lists of potential scenarios and soliciting feedback from parishioners that helped the teams narrow down the lists of possibilities.
In assessing each possible configuration, special attention was paid not only to the communities that were naturally linked geographically or through affiliated school districts or businesses, but also the population sizes and ministerial needs of each community, Kilbridge said.
Both planning teams eventually chose similar configurations. The Wayne County parishes were grouped into two clusters, as were the parishes in Auburn and northern Cayuga County. Each of the four new clusters will be served by a pastor as well as a parochial vicar. Those involved with the process in Cayuga County felt that having two clusters, each with two priests, would be better than having one large cluster with four priests, Rinefierd said.
“They thought (the two-cluster configuration) would be a better pastoral experience for parishioners. They would get to know their priests more easily and quickly that way,” she said.
The number of parishioners in each of the two new Wayne County clusters is roughly equal, even though one of the clusters comprises three parishes and the other comprises just two, noted a February 2019 report to Bishop Matano from Deacon Robert E. Lee, chairperson of the Wayne County planning team.
“This scenario may also serve to mitigate the effects of continuing population declines in eastern Wayne County, by linking smaller parishes with the larger St. Michael’s Parish, thus strengthening all parishes for the long term,” Deacon Lee wrote.
Once the cluster configurations had been chosen, planning-team members studied the Mass schedules at the various churches. They developed new recommended Mass schedules, taking into account parishioners’ needs and preferences as well as the challenges posed by distances between the worship sites. The new Mass schedules took effect June 25 in both Wayne County clusters as well as the cluster formed by Holy Family, St. Alphonsus, Sacred Heart and St. Ann. Three priests still currently serve the parishes of St. Mary, Ss. Mary and Martha and Our Lady of the Snow, so the recommended Mass schedule for that future cluster has not yet taken effect, Rinefierd said.
“That basically will go into effect when one of the priests is reassigned, when one begins senior-priest status or when one is no longer able to serve,” she explained.
The geographic distance between churches in Auburn is minimal, so many Auburn parishioners are used to occasionally attending Mass at different churches outside of their own parishes, she added.
“Even though everyone loves their own parish and that’s home ‚Ä¶ most of them are familiar with most of the churches,” Rinefierd said. “It’s a little more complicated for Our Lady of the Snow, especially Cato, which is the furthest away.”
Leaders in the already clustered parishes are focused on making parishioners aware of the new Mass schedules “so they show up to the right church at the right time,” she said, noting that there are no plans for the clustered parishes to take steps to officially merge.
“It wouldn’t make any sense to merge things when down the road five years or 10 years another grouping might make more sense,” Rinefierd said.
The church’s mission will remain the same regardless of changes taking place now or in the future, Kilbridge noted.
“We are always called as people of God to live that mission and be creative in how we live that in the world,” she said. “The mission doesn’t change. All we change is how we accomplish that mission, so that is the ongoing work at the local level for all of our parishes.”