Parish consolidation rises - Catholic Courier

Parish consolidation rises

Forming a parish once meant erecting a church to serve the immediate
area and getting a priest for the newly gathered flock. But out of
necessity, that pattern is reversing itself these days in the Diocese
of Rochester.

New parishes are still being formed with such names as Good
Shepherd, Blessed Trinity and All Saints. Yet their establishment now
involves consolidating pre-existing parishes and church buildings,
primarily because there aren’t enough priests to go around.

The process of dissolving a group of parishes to form one parish
with multiple churches, or “worship sites,” was first implemented in
the diocese in 1999 when the Southern Cayuga pastoral-planning group
became Good Shepherd Catholic Community. Since that time two other
planning groups (Corning-Painted Post in 2001 and Tioga in 2003) have
instituted that model, with two more (Northern Steuben/Southern
Livingston and Western Steuben) set to do so next June and another
(Western Livingston) expecting to follow suit within the next few

The process involves consolidating staffs, programs, Mass schedules
and finances. According to William Pickett, director of the diocesan
Office of Planning, the model is best utilized in areas where a single
pastor is responsible for multiple parishes.

“It begins to make sense if you realize, instead of four parishes
having four of everything, why don’t we become a single parish?”
Pickett said.

Deacon Ray Defendorf is a veteran of this process, having been a
pastoral moderator in Corning-Painted Post before serving from 2001-03
as pastoral administrator of St. James in Waverly, one of the six Tioga
parishes that adopted a reconfiguration plan to become Blessed Trinity
Parish. He said consolidating resources can be a stressful process, but
also beneficial if done with an open mind.

“It’s a creative way of making lemonade out of lemons,” remarked
Deacon Defendorf, who is now the first-year pastoral administrator at
St. Mary’s in Bath.

In order to create a new parish, all participating parishes must
agree to forego their individual canonical identities. Assuming this
process occurs for all six planning groups mentioned above, six
parishes would be formed where there had been a total of 29 — a
decrease of 23 parishes.

At the point of reconfiguration, all churches in the Southern
Cayuga, Corning-Painted Post and Tioga groups were still used for
regular Sunday worship. But even though Pickett said this model gives
planning groups a better chance of keeping their buildings open,
survival is not guaranteed. Buildings in both southern Cayuga County
and Corning-Painted Post have closed as the issue of priest staffing
continued to dog local planning groups.

“What we’re telling them is, here’s the problem and it’s not going
to go away,” Pickett said.

Facing reality

The diocesan pastoral-planning process began under the banner
Pastoral Planning for the New Millennium in 1997, when 35 groups of
faith communities (parishes, campus ministries, prison ministries and
hospital chapels) began meeting to plan their collective futures.
Working with the diocesan Office of Planning, each group developed a
set of final recommendations for a five-year period, subject to
approval by Bishop Matthew H. Clark.

Planning groups are currently in their second round of five-year
projections. This time, they’re also being asked to make 10-year
projections based on priest support expected to be available for their
area. In keeping with church law, a priest is to celebrate no more than
three Sunday Masses per week. Already, there are significantly fewer
diocesan priests (129 not counting externs and retirees) than parishes
(161), and Pickett noted the number of active priests is projected to
drop to 62 by the year 2025.

During the last two decades, the diocese has attempted to address
this dilemma through the process of clustering, in which one priest
served two or more parishes. Those parishes also combined some staff,
programs and events, but each parish maintained its own finances and
parish pastoral council.

With one parish and multiple worship sites, all elements are
combined. Each church building retains its original name, but the
parish once represented by that building is formally dissolved.

More often than not, it appears, this model leaves newly formed
parishes with more buildings than it can fully utilize. Case in point:
During the last two years in Good Shepherd Catholic Community, St.
Joseph’s in Cayuga has been put up for sale, while St. Bernard’s in
Scipio Center and St. Patrick’s in Aurora have dropped regular Sunday
liturgies. This leaves St. Patrick’s in Moravia, Our Lady of the Lake
in King Ferry and St. Michael’s in Union Springs as the only Good
Shepherd worship sites currently offering weekly Sunday Mass.

Tom Collins, who currently chairs Good Shepherd’s parish
council/planning team, considered it a long shot in 1999 that all six
churches would remain open.

“My personal opinion was that was never going to happen. It was hope
against hope,” Collins said, adding that with a combined Sunday
attendance of 400 to 450 at the three current Sunday worship sites,
Good Shepherd can’t easily justify having more than one priest
allocated. Father Donald Curtiss, pastor, is the only priest assigned
to the parish.

In Corning-Painted Post, All Saints Parish was formed in 2001 with
the sense that maintaining four worship sites might someday become a
luxury, Deacon Defendorf said.

“I think it was obvious someplace had to go eventually,” said Deacon
Defendorf, who served for more than 20 years in the Corning-Painted
Post churches. Within months of All Saints’ founding, mounting repair
costs forced the closing of St. Patrick’s Church. The parish’s three
remaining worship sites are St. Mary’s and St. Vincent de Paul in
Corning, and Immaculate Heart of Mary in Painted Post. All Saints is
headed not by a priest, but a pastoral administrator — Sister of St.
Joseph Joan Cawley.

Planning groups in other parts of the diocese seem to be preparing
to make do with fewer worship sites. Because they are losing one of
their two full-time priests, Pickett said Western Steuben will keep all
four of its churches open when it becomes a single parish in 2004, but
that only two (St. Ann’s, Hornell, and St. Mary’s, Rexville) will
continue as regular Sunday worship sites. The other two (St. Ignatius
Loyola, Hornell, and St. Joachim, Canisteo) will only be used
occasionally. And the Northern Steuben/Southern Livingston planning
group, which also will combine four parishes in 2004, foresees
eliminating two regular worship sites over the ensuing five years.

Decreasing use of churches is occurring in other ways as well. In
Livonia and Conesus, St. Joseph and St. William are being merged into
St. Matthew Parish. Both existing church buildings are closing, and
will be replaced by a single new church that is under construction and
projected to open by early 2004. And in the city of Rochester, St.
Philip Neri — part of the City East planning group — this year closed
both its parish and its church building. The final Mass at St. Philip
took place in August.

Local input is vital

Pickett said all diocesan parishes eventually will feel the effect
of the priest shortage and should gauge their futures accordingly. For
now, he said, the biggest areas of concern are rural parishes, which
have small and scattered populations; and urban parishes, where
planners must contend with sparse populations as well as the challenges
posed by aging buildings, limited finances, crime and the need to
address racial diversity.

Decisions will continue to be made at the planning-group level, as
group officials work in conjunction with Pickett and his department’s
two liaisons, Casey Lopata and Karen Rinefierd.

“The way we’ve done it is important. The issue does not become, ‘Who
did this to us?’ It’s not a letter from the bishop saying we’re closing
the church,” Pickett said. “To this point we have been able to proceed
by consensus coming from the local level, and that’s what the bishop

Yet consensus is rarely the starting point in the process. “I don’t
think there’s a turf war anymore. But during the process? Oh yes,”
Collins observed of deliberations in the Southern Cayuga region.
“People were going to lose their place of worship. My wife was involved
in (planning-group meetings) and she used to come home crying.”

Deacon Defendorf said promoting optimism and communication is
crucial while moving through these difficult stages. For instance, he
noted that the Tioga planning group dubbed itself “Strength of Six”
during its planning process. Tioga also began a combined parish
bulletin in anticipation of Blessed Trinity Parish’s founding,
featuring columns with such titles as “Praying Together,” “Serving
Together” and “Growing Together.” In addition, Blessed Trinity drew
approximately 1,000 people — including Bishop Clark as celebrant — to
observe its founding Mass and picnic in Owego Sept. 14.

Now, Deacon Defendorf said, he’s seeing the same kind of
collaboration in the Central Steuben Planning Group. A picnic in Bath
Sept. 7 brought together 150 to 175 people representing all five faith
communities, and a joint vocations-awareness effort is also under way.
In addition, Kelly Howard, a first-year youth minister, is the first
staff person to serve the entire planning group.

Central Steuben has one full-time priest, one part-timer and one
retired priest for its five churches. Currently there are no plans to
reconfigure, but Deacon Defendorf said that day is sure to come.

“When we’re told there’s going to be one priest in 2010, obviously
you’ve got to do something. The more we can work together in this
region, the better it’s going to go,” he said. “Those turf issues take
a long time, but they have to be broken down.”

Collins, for one, feels this has already occurred in Good Shepherd
Catholic Community.

“I am definitely a positive person. I would not have volunteered for
the (parish) council if I thought it was going to be as bad as before,”
he said.

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