Chemung changes are many - Catholic Courier

Chemung changes are many

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth in an occasional series on how Southern Tier parishes are dealing with challenges brought on by consolidation.

For 157 years, Ss. Peter and Paul Church — the first Catholic church in Elmira — has been a symbol of stability. Yet the church’s parish affiliations have undergone major evolutions in recent years.

In early 2007 Ss. Peter and Paul was merged into a single parish that also includes the churches of St. Anthony and St. Patrick. This consolidation took place one year after the three churches had formed a cluster — and less than two decades after Ss. Peter and Paul had been clustered with two different churches that since have closed.

Such are the changing times in Chemung County, where in 2006 six out of eight churches were involved in the clustering process and Mass schedules were rearranged. The other recently formed cluster incorporates St. Casimir, St. Charles Borromeo and Our Lady of Lourdes.

Clustering occurs when one full-time priest is assigned to serve two or more parishes, which begin collaborating on staffing, programs and events. Elmira’s clusters are linked to the diocesan pastoral-planning process, begun in the late 1990s to address the ongoing priest shortage as well as demographic changes.

Earlier this year St. Anthony/St. Patrick/Ss. Peter and Paul went one step further, moving from a cluster to a single parish with multiple worship sites but merged staffs, finances and parish pastoral councils. The newly formed parish took the new name of Blessed Sacrament.

According to Karen Rinefierd, diocesan pastoral-planning liaison, the three former parishes were consolidated by Bishop Matthew H. Clark under church law in February and a civil merger was completed in April. She added that the pastoral plan calls for a similar merger to occur by 2010 with St. Casimir/St. Charles Borromeo/Our Lady of Lourdes.

Michael Gehl, chair of the Chemung-Schuyler regional pastoral-planning council, observed that along with fewer priests, there are fewer Catholics in the city than in previous generations, and the ethnic distinctions that once separated these churches have blurred.

“They’re no longer just local neighborhood churches,” he remarked.

Meanwhile, the two freestanding parishes that remain in Chemung County — St. Mary Our Mother in Horseheads and St. Mary Southside in Elmira — are to remain independent entities through at least 2015.

“They’re good-sized churches and they draw from the community,” Gehl explained.

Few have ridden these waves of change to the degree of Gehl, who at one time attended St. Cecilia and St. John the Baptist churches. Those two parishes had clustered in 1982, when the reconfiguration process was still brand-new in the Rochester Diocese. They were then joined with Ss. Peter and Paul in 1990, forming what was known as the Eastside Catholic Parish cluster.

However, St. Cecilia and St. John both closed in 1998. The Eastside title was eventually changed back to Ss. Peter and Paul before the parish became part of the new Blessed Sacrament Parish.

Gehl acknowledged that this series of transitions has been difficult on parishioners, especially for older generations “if you’re used to the same church for 40, 50, 60 years.”

Gehl and Ann Irwin from Our Lady of Lourdes observed that the pastors, Father Walter Wainwright (Blessed Sacrament) and Father Jeremiah Moynihan (St. Casimir/St. Charles Borromeo/Our Lady of Lourdes) have slowly but firmly kept the pastoral-planning process moving along.

“I think people are beginning to accept that, but there’s still some resistance,” Irwin said.

The good news is that these transitions have yielded many examples of multiparish collaboration. For instance, Gehl said that he has two children involved in a longtime youth group at Ss. Peter and Paul that now also welcomes young people from St. Anthony and St. Patrick. He added that an annual Italian festival, a staple at St. Anthony Church, is being planned for this September with involvement from Blessed Sacrament Parish’s other two worship sites.

Meanwhile, Irwin and her husband, Bill, serve as parish Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults coordinators. This year, for the first time, Triduum services were rotated among St. Casimir, St. Charles and Our Lady of Lourdes, with the format being well-received by all three parishes, she noted.

“They were all thrilled at the end, even the sponsors. We’re quite proud of that,” Irwin said.

Other examples of collaboration in Elmira are:

* Theology on Tap, a young-adult discussion series, which is open to all Catholics in the Chemung County area. It was begun in September 2006 by two Our Lady of Lourdes parishioners, Laurie and Sean Garner. Theology on Tap meets once a month at Horigan’s Tavern on Davis Street, usually every third Wednesday from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

* A regional 5 p.m. Mass, begun in 2002, which takes place each Sunday at St. Patrick Church. Priests from area churches take turns celebrating the liturgy, and parishioners rotate among such liturgical roles as lectors, ushers, musicians and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion.

* An annual free spaghetti supper, which was begun by St. Patrick and serves hundreds of Elmira residents, just observed its 20th year on May 31. It became a joint effort of St. Patrick and St. Anthony when those two churches were clustered in 1994, and additional support now comes from Ss. Peter and Paul.

* Elmira Free Community Kitchen, located at the new Ss. Peter and Paul Parish Center that opened in late 2004, has long been a combined ecumenical effort in Elmira, with numerous Catholic parishes supporting the ministry.

* A parish retreat, “Embracing God in Life Today,” was presented for the six clustered churches May 21-24. Fittingly, the theme for the retreat’s opening session was “Embracing God during Times of Change.”

“They seem to be doing healthy things and at an appropriate pace,” Rinefierd said of the Elmira parishes. “There seems to be good spirit among the leadership people.”

“It’s a good indication that the parishes are working together to get everybody involved,” said Gehl, who also serves as director of Schuyler County Catholic Charities.

Gehl pointed out that because the churches are close geographically, Elmira is an ideal locale for these joint ministries.

“We’re all still Catholics in a small city, so we have the fringe benefits of different churches and different parishes,” Gehl said. “It adds to the community, if you will, of the Catholic diocese down here.”

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