EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth in an occasional series on how Southern Tier parishes are dealing with challenges brought on by consolidation.
Much more than is necessary in most parts of the Rochester Diocese, the vehicles of staff and parishioners in central Steuben County must be in top working order, thanks to interparish collaboration.
Five church communities in five villages — spread across a largely rural area — are exploring ways to maintain distinct identities while adhering to the diocesan pastoral plan that calls for greater sharing of staff and resources. The Central Steuben Planning Group comprises the “A-B-C” parishes of St. Catherine of Siena in Addison, St. Stanislaus in Bradford and St. Joseph in Campbell, as well as St. Mary in Bath and St. Gabriel in Hammondsport.
Deacon Raymond Defendorf, pastoral administrator at St. Mary, noted that all five churches in the planning group are stable in such key areas as finances, Mass attendance and volunteerism.
“There’s something valuable about what happens in a rural parish, where people have great ownership,” he said.
Nonetheless, these parishes must prepare to work together more regularly. Though it’s not expected in the immediate future, Deacon Defendorf said eventually a time will come when just one priest will be available for the five churches.
As it is, the only current priest leader among those parishes is Father Patrick Connor, the first-year pastor in Addison, Bradford and Campbell. He is assisted by Father Francis Erb, a retired diocesan priest. Meanwhile, Father Peter Anglaaere, an African priest, serves as sacramental minister at St. Mary and St. Gabriel. The churches also get occasional assistance from Father John Wydeven, a full-time chaplain at Bath VA Medical Center who resides in the St. Mary rectory.
St. Gabriel was the first diocesan parish to adopt the pastoral-administrator model when Sister Anne Michelle McGill, SSJ, stepped on board in 1994. She retired last year and has been succeeded in Hammondsport by another pastoral administrator, Maureen O’Neill. Deacon Defendorf was the first pastoral administrator in Bath, where he has served since 2003.
Should priest availability drop further in Central Steuben, a likely move would be to reduce the number of Sunday Masses offered in the group — possibly to one Mass per church. Yet that could lead to overcrowding, given the influx of summer Mass goers in such lake communities as Bradford and Hammondsport. Deacon Defendorf said one possible solution to that problem would be to physically expand at least one of the churches; another would be to show Mass on a video screen in a room outside of the sanctuary.
Given the large distances between the five communities, it is unlikely that the group would consolidate by closing one or more church buildings. As it stands already, the drive from Bradford to Addison is more than 30 miles — and those two churches are under the same pastorate.
Father Connor, who was pastor of a three-church cluster in Elmira when it downsized to one church in 1998, said that the Elmira “churches were very close together. (But) in rural parishes, where churches are so spread out, I think distance would be a factor (against closing a church).”
In addition, O’Neill observed that each Central Steuben parish “is very different in culture and temperaments from the other,” while Deacon Defendorf added that “there are no real affinities. You can’t say the people who live in Addison, Bath and Hammondsport all shop together.”
Sharing of staff has proven challenging for Central Steuben. The five churches briefly shared a full-time youth minister, but that position has gone unfilled since 2004. However, occasional combined events seem to hold promise. O’Neill noted that Mary Carol Wall of St. Mary in Bath plans to lead a Creating a Safe Environment for Children and Youth staff training for all five churches, and Deacon Defendorf is exploring a joint Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program. In the future, Father Connor said, “My hope is to try and make things available during the daytime so people don’t have to travel at night or on a weekend.”
For now, Father Connor said he’s focusing on settling into his new pastorate. He took over for Father Gerald T. O’Connor, who oversaw the A-B-C churches for many years until his retirement in 2007.
“I came into the situation as a learner. Right now I’m exploring a lot of territory in terms of county roads, and also the people and what their experience and situation is,” he said.
Also new to A-B-C is Deacon Dan Williams, a native of St. Gabriel who was just ordained to the permanent diaconate in June. Deacon Williams is serving in Bradford and Campbell while also working part time with Steuben County Catholic Charities, developing a program on rural parish ministry.
Despite the distance issues, Deacon Defendorf said the Central Steuben parishes have come a long way in developing trust among the various communities since the pastoral-planning process began.
“We’ve made really great strides in reducing the suspicion that one person or one place wanted to take over the other,” he remarked.
As for the future, “we’ll continue to share, and continue to try and find ways to streamline services — just continue doing what we’re doing,” O’Neill said. “It seems to be working.”