FREEVILLE — Geography often has a lot to do with shaping a particular parish’s sense of identity. In light of this fact, the Diocese of Rochester is sponsoring a daylong workshop devoted to rural ministry Nov. 15 at Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel in Watkins Glen. “Our Rural Parishes and Towns: A Portrait of Who We Are and What We Can Be” will be the culmination of a yearlong diocesan focus on rural ministry.
Rural parishes and the diocese as a whole need to answer several key questions to ensure they’re effectively serving God’s people, explained diocesan pastoral planning-group liaison Deborah Housel.
“How does the church respond to what is happening in our rural parish areas? What do our leaders, who work tirelessly in the rural parishes of our diocese, need in order to sustain, encourage and assist them in their work? What is a rural parish in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester?” Housel asked.
Between February and May, Housel and fellow planning-group liaison Karen Rinefierd facilitated four listening sessions, which were open to all who worked — either as an employee or a volunteer — at parishes that consider themselves rural. Listening-session participants described their faith communities’ strengths, weaknesses and the characteristics that made them unique and different from urban and suburban parishes, Housel said.
In September and October parish representatives again gathered for a series of four working sessions. There they described some of their parishes’ “best practices” or ways they’ve successfully maintained their Catholic presence and ministries in rural communities, even in the face of church closings and parish clustering. At the Oct. 7 session at Holy Cross Church in Freeville, for example, representatives from one cluster talked about their six-page bulletin, which includes a page for each church as well as a cluster page and helps foster a common identity while at the same time maintaining each parish’s individual identity.
Parish representatives provided a point person and contact information for each best practice discussed, and that information will be compiled into a book and distributed during the Nov. 15 program, Housel said. Parish representatives also discussed ministerial needs in their rural communities and what kinds of support they’d like to receive from each other and from the diocese as a whole in addressing these needs.
Rural parishes often are separated from each other by many miles of hills or farmland, and travel even between neighboring rural parishes can take more than a convenient amount of time, Housel said. For this reason, many rural parishioners feel isolated from each other and the diocese, said Housel, who hopes the book of best practices will reduce this feeling of isolation by providing such parishioners and their parishes with ways to learn from and communicate with each other.
Holy Cross parishioners Roger and Jeanne Pellerin said their participation in the listening and working sessions helped them realize that other parishes are facing similar challenges and share their concerns about clustering and identity. Holy Cross is clustered with St. Anthony Parish in Groton and All Saints in Lansing.
“Identity is the big thing, how to maintain our own identity while coming together, and how to come together without losing ourselves,” Roger Pellerin said.
Parishioners also worry about losing weekend Masses at their own churches when they cluster with another church, especially when it can take a half hour to drive between the two, he said.
“I think those are common concerns,” he added.
Some of those concerns may be addressed during the Nov. 15 program, which will feature the best-practices book as well as author Paul Wilkes, who will lead the day’s events. Wilkes has written 18 nonfiction books and has hosted, written, directed and produced several Public Broadcasting Service documentaries. During his morning session he’ll speak about “The State of Our Rural Catholic Parishes Today” and “Excellent Catholic Parishes: What Makes the Difference?”
The program includes time for listening and discerning before lunch; after lunch Wilkes will offer a challenge to participants before the program concludes with a blessing by Bishop Matthew H. Clark.
“This day is to celebrate who they are and also to show a picture of what is a rural parish of the Diocese of Rochester,” Housel said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about the Nov. 15 rural-ministry program, contact Deborah Housel at 585-328-3228, ext. 1328, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.