Effective July 1, six parishes in the City of Elmira will reconfigure into two new clusters, an arrangement in which one pastor oversees two or more churches.
Our Lady of Lourdes will join the existing St. Casimir/St. Charles Borromeo cluster, and Ss. Peter and Paul will combine with the St. Anthony/St. Patrick cluster. The changes are based on a pastoral plan approved in November 2005 by the Chemung-Schuyler Regional Council planning group, and affirmed by Bishop Matthew H. Clark in early January.
Each new cluster will be served by one pastoral leader, reducing the total number of administrators at the six churches from three to two. These positions will be open to members of the diocese’s pastoral-administrator pool and to diocesan priests, including those currently leading the six churches: Father Walter Wainwright, pastor of St. Anthony/St. Patrick and temporary administrator of Ss. Peter and Paul; Father Jeremiah Moynihan, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes; and Father Eugene Dobosz, parochial administrator of St. Casimir/St. Charles Borromeo.
Among other first-year actions entailed in the pastoral plan are revised Mass schedules, with three fewer Sunday liturgies being offered in Chemung County; the sharing of a sacramental minister by the two new clusters; cluster-wide parish bulletins; and greater collaboration of staffs, programs and events within the clusters.
These changes result from local efforts as part of a diocesan-wide pastoral-planning process — begun in the late 1990s — that called parishes to share resources in regional groups in response to the declining number of available priests. In addition to the priest shortage, the area’s pastoral plan noted that the city faces additional challenges particular to Elmira, including a decreasing and aging population; decreasing Mass attendance; and declining collections.
The formation of two clusters largely arises from the geographic proximity of the affected churches, said Karen Rinefierd, diocesan pastoral-planning liaison for Chemung-Schuyler.
“You would never be building churches that close together today,” Rinefierd remarked, noting that St. Mary’s Southside and St. Mary Our Mother in Horseheads — the only two parishes in Chemung-Schuyler that will not be a part of any cluster after July — each cover wider areas.
Of the new configurations, Our Lady of Lourdes will be the sole newcomer to clustering. St. Casimir/St. Charles Borromeo clustered in 1994, as did St. Anthony/St. Patrick. Ss. Peter and Paul was part of the Eastside Catholic Parish cluster before St. John the Baptist and St. Cecilia both closed in 1998.
Brian Stutts, an Our Lady of Lourdes member who serves as chairman of the Chemung-Schuyler planning group, said parishioners at his church have generally responded well to the prospect of clustering.
“They recognize that it’s their turn this time,” he said.
The pastoral plan calls for each cluster eventually to become a single parish, with merged staffs and finances. However, Rinefierd and Stutts said, no such action will occur in 2006.
Initial steps in the plan originally were scheduled to take effect in the summer of 2005, but the plan was delayed for one year while planners resolved details regarding parishes’ financial responsibility toward the Holy Family Catholic School System. An addendum to the pastoral plan states, in part:
“In the event that one of the parishes — particularly the to-be consolidated parish which includes Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Casimir and St. Charles Borromeo and contains two school buildings — is unable to afford continued capital support of a building housing a school and the local schools still require its use, all parishes will work together to resolve this issue. Our intent is to ensure sustained funding for the schools to keep the school system vital and vibrant. We commit that all parishes will work together and none will step away and abandon the school system.”
Holy Family Junior High is on the St. Casimir campus, and Holy Family Intermediate is at Our Lady of Lourdes. The system’s third school, Holy Family Primary, is at St. Mary’s Southside.
Other than the schools issue, Rinefierd and Stutts said all aspects of the pastoral plan came together fairly smoothly.
“It’s grassroots, locally led,” Rinefierd said. “The hope is that it will make the ministries of the churches healthier, stronger.”
“I think there’s actually a sincere interest in it — the level of involvement, the comments and feedback, a lot of people showing up to meetings,” Stutts said, adding that “there was some natural fear of the unknown but not any kind of resistance toward it.” He lauded area priests for quelling that fear.
“They have stressed the importance of embracing this change and looking at it from a growth point, rather than destructing or tearing down the church,” he said.