ROCHESTER — A brave new world awaits the 19th Ward/Corn Hill/Bull’s Head Planning Group as it consolidates five parishes under one roof, according to a pastoral plan approved Oct. 25 by Bishop Matthew H. Clark.
Our Lady of Good Counsel on Brooks Avenue and St. Augustine on Chili Avenue are due to discontinue Masses in the near future, at which time parishioners will move to St. Monica on Genesee Street.
Within the next two years, Ss. Peter and Paul on West Main Street also will close, leaving St. Monica as the planning group’s only remaining worship site. The group’s fifth parish, Emmanuel Church of the Deaf, currently holds Masses at Our Lady of Good Counsel and will relocate to St. Monica as well.
Ss. Peter and Paul, founded in 1843, St. Augustine, founded in 1898, and Good Counsel, founded in 1928, are fixtures on Rochester’s southwest side. Now the church buildings — as well as their other properties, such as rectories and former schools — are all for sale.
Although multiple church closings are not imminent for other planning groups in the City of Rochester, all groups are making adjustments due to the ongoing priest shortage in the Diocese of Rochester. And many city parishes are contending with the additional challenges of declining attendance, low funds and aging structures.
“We’re faced with big, beautiful, worn-out buildings, with fewer people and not enough money to keep them up,” said William Pickett, diocesan director of pastoral planning. “It’s nobody’s fault. The population in the city has dwindled.”
It has been 75 years since a new Catholic parish and church were founded in the City of Rochester, Pickett noted. He added that urban flight by Catholics is common in large cities across the United States, as the ethnic groups that established urban parishes have largely moved to the suburbs.
Arthur Wischmeyer, 90, has been an usher at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church since 1942. He acknowledged that many Good Counsel parishioners have left the neighborhood in the past several years.
“People moving in either aren’t Catholic or don’t go to church,” he said after a recent Sunday 8:15 a.m. Mass.
Speaking of the upcoming changes, Wischmeyer said, “I guess they’re necessary. But the people that come to this church like this church. Most of us are old-timers.”
Reconfiguration within the 19th Ward/Corn Hill/Bull’s Head Planning Group first occurred in 1992, when St. Monica, Our Lady of Good Counsel and St. Augustine formed a cluster sharing a pastoral leader and staff. The group adopted the cluster name Roman Catholic Community of the 19th Ward.
Having moved its Masses to Good Counsel around that same time, Emmanuel Church of the Deaf has operated alongside the cluster but remained a separate parish. Ss. Peter and Paul became affiliated with the 19th Ward churches through the diocesan pastoral-planning process that began in the late 1990s.
Our Lady of Good Counsel and St. Augustine will move to St. Monica “as quickly as possible,” according to Father Raymond Fleming, newly named pastor of the amalgamated, or combined, parish. He said he would work with Bishop Clark to determine an exact timetable for final Masses at Good Counsel and St. Augustine.
Ss. Peter and Paul’s move to St. Monica probably will depend on when the church is sold. According to Sister Patricia Flass, pastoral associate, Ss. Peter and Paul would like to join the amalgamated parish at a later date in order to avoid leaving the church unoccupied for any period of time before a sale. Father Fleming also noted that Ss. Peter and Paul is getting extra time for this transition because the parish only recently became affiliated with the 19th Ward cluster through pastoral planning.
Father Fleming was the longtime pastor of Emmanuel Church of the Deaf. He began his new position on Sept. 12 in a move precipitated by the resignation earlier that month of Sister of St. Joseph Sue Hoffman, who had been pastoral administrator of St. Augustine, St. Monica, Good Counsel and Ss. Peter and Paul.
St. Monica was founded in 1898. Deb Housel, diocesan pastoral planning liaison for 19th Ward/Corn Hill/Bull’s Head, said designating that church as the planning group’s sole worship site was the result of many surveys, studies and meetings. Among the leading factors in this decision were that St. Monica’s campus has the group’s only operating Catholic school, and that substantial funding is available for building repair through a trust left by a St. Monica parishioner, she said. Housel also noted that St. Monica received the most votes in a survey among parishioners in all the affected parishes.
In a June 27, 2005, letter to planning group steering committee co-chairs Marilyn Catherine and Karen Snyder in response to the proposed plan, Bishop Clark noted that there are 776 households for four church buildings. That’s an average of fewer than 200 per church, making it impossible for those churches to approach the diocesan average of roughly 1,000 families per church.
While the diocesan average may have been within reach back in the heyday of 19th Ward/Corn Hill/Bull’s Head, “it is not possible today,” Bishop Clark wrote. Pickett also noted that these churches have the lowest ratio of parishioners per church building of any planning group in the City of Rochester.
Bishop Clark’s letter added that “dire financial circumstances” among the affected churches have been a major catalyst for the consolidation.
“The people know something had to give. They know we have to do a real pulling together of our resources,” Father Fleming added.
“I have sort of seen it coming since I got here since the numbers are so small, and given the expenses and everything,” said Sister Flass, who is in her fourth year at Ss. Peter and Paul. The Sister of St. Joseph will remain on as a pastoral associate for the amalgamated parish.
Housel said the reconfigured parish will emphasize being a strong ministerial presence, even while operating fewer church buildings.
“They chose to invest more in ministries to the area than in buildings,” Housel said of the planning group, explaining that the money saved from maintenance of structures can be put toward such initiatives as a transportation ministry for senior citizens.
Along these lines, Sister Flass said she hopes some sort of storefront ministry can be set up to continue serving the needs of neighborhood residents in the absence of Ss. Peter and Paul Church. She explained that people often show up at the parish door “to talk, any number of reasons. They come to use the phone, the bathroom, the fax machine, the copy machine. It’s a friendly place. They come here and ask for bus tokens, which I usually provide.”
Sister Flass emphasized that these visitors are residents of the church’s immediate neighborhood, and that they probably would not travel to St. Monica for similar ministries.
The best-known ministry at Ss. Peter and Paul is St. Peter’s Kitchen, housed in the former parish school. Sister Flass said the ministry hopes to remain there even after the property is sold, and will relocate nearby if that is not possible.
Despite its low numbers, the planning group has a notably diverse population. Along with the deaf community, it comprises parishioners who are Portuguese, Italian and African-American.
“Because of the many different cultures and groups, this has been a very tender process,” Housel said. “It will take quite a stretch and shift to ensure all are welcomed. This does not go painlessly.”
The pain of the consolidation was reflected in an addendum to the final pastoral plan for 19th Ward/Corn Hill/Bull’s Head, in which St. Augustine declared itself the only parish in the group to dissent from the final recommendation. In the addendum, dated June 14, 2005, St. Augustine parish-council members protested the way in which the planning process was conducted; cited concern about the consolidation’s impact on the Portuguese community; and asked that their church be left open for the time being due to the potential negative impact of vacant churches in the area.
Although Ss. Peter and Paul went along with the pastoral plan, Sister Flass said that regrets run deep over the loss of the church, which is one of the oldest in the diocese and is renowned for its interior beauty.
“People look at it as an anchor,” she said.
Meanwhile, Wischmeyer predicted that some Good Counsel people would go over to St. Monica but others would not. He, for one, plans to attend St. Helen in Gates. Yet in his bulletin letter of Oct. 15-16, Father Fleming implored people to support the newly consolidated parish at St. Monica.
“The parish will not survive without your full and active participation. Please let us hear from you,” he wrote.
Royal Chamberlain, an usher at St. Monica, said his parish is well-known for its welcoming attitude and hopes that the people from Ss. Peter and Paul, St. Augustine and Good Counsel will experience that warmth.
“We will look forward to walking with our brothers and sisters. Each individual brings a unique set of gifts,” said Chamberlain, noting that new members will be encouraged to join the kinds of committees and ministries they’re leaving behind at the churches that are closing.
By the same token, Chamberlain said he understands what these parishioners are experiencing, comparing their loss to a loved one who has died.
“I know it will be difficult. There’s a very strong sense of identity, and it’s very difficult to break those bonds for many people,” he said.
More changes loom
What lies ahead for other urban planning groups? Getting by with fewer priests is definite for those in Rochester and in the diocese’s smaller cities, where — in most cases — a pastor or pastoral administrator already is responsible for two or more parishes.
Among the smaller cities, Elmira and Auburn are expected to develop new clustering configurations within the next six months, said Karen Rinefierd, diocesan pastoral planning liaison. Clustering, along with creation of a single parish with multiple worship sites, also have occurred in such cities as Corning, Geneva and Hornell. Most of these smaller cities have seen the closing of at least one church building per planning group in recent years.
It remains to be seen when and where other church closings will occur. But Pickett emphasized that closing a church is a move neither Bishop Clark nor any other bishop ever enjoys making.
“The only reason you close a parish is to make the faith community more vital,” Pickett said.
Despite the inevitable struggles, Pickett said the pastoral planning process — through which groups of parish representatives work with diocesan planning officials to chart the future in light of available resources — is more inclusive than closing large groups of parishes with no parishioner input, as has occurred in several dioceses and archdioceses.
Pastoral planning “was a process that enabled all this, as difficult as it was. There was no secret plan” for 19th Ward/Corn Hill/Bull’s Head, Pickett said.
“I’m not sure it reduces the pain, but it has a sense of groundedness and ownership on the part of the people. They reluctantly came to their conclusion, but they came to it and are going to make it work,” he observed.
Updates on planning in City of Rochester
The following is a listing of significant upcoming and recent changes for pastoral-planning groups within the City of Rochester:
* 19th Ward/Corn Hill/Bull’s Head — St. Augustine, Our Lady of Good Counsel, Ss. Peter and Paul, St. Monica and Emmanuel Church of the Deaf will consolidate from four buildings to one located at the present St. Monica Church. St. Augustine and Our Lady of Good Counsel (which also houses Emmanuel Church of the Deaf) are due to hold their final Masses “as quickly as possible,” according to Father Raymond Fleming, pastor. Ss. Peter and Paul will discontinue Masses at some point within the next two years.
* City East — St. Philip Neri closed in 2003. Church of the Annunciation and St. Andrew became a cluster in 2004. Two other churches, St. George and St. Stanislaus, continue to operate separately.
* Center City East — Corpus Christi, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and St. Francis Xavier/Holy Redeemer became a cluster in 2005. Also in 2005, Our Lady of Perpetual Help and St. Michael’s were clustered with each other.
* Winton-Culver Catholic Community — St. Ambrose, St. John the Evangelist and St. James were clustered in 2004.
* Flower City Park/Lexington — The Catholic Community of Holy Rosary, Most Precious Blood and Sacred Heart Cathedral was formed in 2005 with the clustering of those three churches.
* City West — St. Francis of Assisi closed in 2000, reducing a cluster of four parishes to one of three. The group’s other parishes — Holy Apostles, Holy Family and St. Anthony of Padua — are moving toward the establishment of a common parish pastoral council.
* Monroe/Clinton — Blessed Sacrament, St. Boniface, St. Mary and Our Lady of Victory/St. Joseph remain independent parishes. Diocesan pastoral planning officials expect that at least one cluster will form in this group during the next few years.
* Immaculate Conception/St. Bridget — The two predominately African-American parishes began sharing a pastor in 2005.