Three Ontario County parishes merged March 30 to form the new St. Peter Parish, according to a decree from Bishop Matthew H. Clark.
St. Dominic in Shortsville, St. Felix in Clifton Springs and St. Francis in Phelps have been working together as a cluster since 2007, so this merger was the next logical step, noted Father Donald Curtiss, pastor.
“People are used to things being combined. We’ve basically been operating as a unit. It’s not too much of a radical change,” he remarked.
The three parishes have shared a pastor, Mass schedule and bulletin, as well as councils and committees, for several years, so most parishioners won’t notice many visible changes, Father Curtiss added. The ones who will most notice — and benefit from — this change are staff members involved in the day-to-day operations of the new parish. When taking care of expenses related to all three churches, for example, the bookkeeper now will be able to write just one check instead of three separate checks that were necessary before, Father Curtiss said.
“The accounting will be somewhat easier,” he said.
For most parishioners, the most visible change will be the new icons of St. Peter installed in each of the church buildings, the pastor said, noting that parishioners helped choose their new patron saint. Several months ago they were asked to suggest potential names for the new parish, and their suggestions were compiled into a long list. The patron saints of other diocesan parishes were deleted from the list, which eventually was narrowed down to nine saints, each with some significance to the new parish.
“We gave the diocese nine names to choose from, and they chose St. Peter,” Father Curtiss said. “St. Peter was submitted because we have three churches and we were trying to have a connection with three. Peter denied Christ three times, and he confessed his love for Christ three times after the resurrection.”
Two of the three former parishes, St. Felix and St. Francis, had been working together as a cluster for more than a decade. St. Dominic joined the cluster in 2007, the same year Father Curtiss became the cluster’s pastor. He’d previously served in southern Cayuga County as pastor of Good Shepherd Catholic Community, another parish with multiple worship sites.
In that first year Father Curtiss helped the parishes put together a cluster pastoral council with representation from each of the three parishes. Soon the cluster also had one liturgy committee, one finance committee and one faith-formation program. These steps were taken in order to help pave the way for a smooth unification process, he said.
“We’ve been working together as a cluster and encouraging everyone to participate as a group, keeping the churches alive and well, (but) not necessarily independent,” said Mary Ellen Darling, a pastoral-council member. “There are lots of opportunities to come together as a parish, but keep the individuality of each church.”
The parishes’ Bishop Joseph Hogan Knights of Columbus Council 13194 is open to all the men of the parish, for example, whereas the Women of St. Dominic and Women of St. Francis groups each raise money to be used for the care and maintenance of their respective churches, she said. Some parishioners still stick to the church they’ve attended for years and don’t interact much with those who have attended the other churches, but those people are becoming a minority, she added.
“As we’ve grown as a cluster and a parish we see more groups coming together and doing things together. We have been trying to do more as a parish and give opportunities for everyone to participate, too, and volunteer,” Darling said.
When people get involved they get to know parishioners from the other worship sites and are no longer strangers to each other, she said. They also develop a sense of ownership of their parish, and both these developments help ease concerns about the unification process, including fears that their church buildings will be closed, said Darling, who belonged to St. Francis.
“It does help. I think it does for me, because I feel like I’m actually a part of the church, and the church is not just a building,” she said. “God is everywhere. Of course I love St. Francis, but it is beyond that.”