Sister of St. Joseph Anne Michelle McGill has enjoyed many swims at the southern end of Keuka Lake during the past 12 years. Yet when she first arrived in Hammondsport, she met uncharted waters in more ways than one.
At St. Gabriel’s Parish, she took over a community that had always been led by a priest. Meanwhile, Sister McGill had never been a pastoral administrator — and she had no mentor or model for guidance, because nobody else in the Rochester Diocese had ever held that role either.
“I didn’t have the foggiest idea. I didn’t know what it entailed,” Sister McGill recalled. “There were no handbooks or formulas or anything to this.” Nonetheless, she willingly took on the position “to see where the Lord would lead me.”
Through the Lord’s guidance, Sister McGill’s success has spawned steady growth of the pastoral-administrator model across the diocese, with numerous parishes now employing non-priests as leaders to cope with the priest shortage.
Sister McGill, 76, is leaving her position in late June due to diocesan policy that limits pastors and pastoral administrators to 12 consecutive years in any one parish. A farewell reception for her took place June 4 at the Pleasant Valley Wine Company.
“It’s not a job. It’s something that I’ve loved for the past 12 years. Because I love it so, the time passed too quickly,” she said.
Sister McGill will now move to the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse near Rochester, and from there “I hope to look around to find some part-time work to keep me busy. I still think I’ve got energy,” she said.
Her successor at St. Gabriel’s is Maureen O’Neill, a Rochester native who is presently a coordinator of pastoral care at Rivington House, a long-term care facility for AIDS patients in New York City. O’Neill will take over a church that’s thriving in many ways: Sister McGill, who has always stressed empowerment of the laity, said she is extremely pleased by St. Gabriel’s increased spirituality and participation in both the parish and community.
“I’m especially proud of how the children have learned that, too,” she added. “They’ve become very involved in the church and, you know, they’re the future.”
During her tenure Sister McGill also has sought to strengthen ecumenical ties, gathering regularly with other faith leaders in town. “When we meet at a restaurant, we meet by a window so that when people walk by they can see the ministers of these churches sitting together,” she said.
The need for a pastoral administrator at St. Gabriel’s had originally surfaced in the early 1990s when the small parish no longer had a pastor and had endured a string of temporary priest assignments. Concerned about St. Gabriel’s ability to survive, parish officials asked the diocese to consider sending a pastoral administrator.
Enter Sister McGill. A Sister of St. Joseph since 1947, she had already logged considerable experience in teaching, administration and parish work. After reading the qualifications for the pastoral-administrator opening, she said she realized she owned much of the proper experience.
She settled into her new responsibilities while Father Robert Hammond, then the pastor at St. Mary’s in Bath, served as sacramental minister. (The two parishes have shared a priest in that role ever since.) Sister McGill commended Father Hammond for consistently portraying her as the undisputed person in charge.
“I think what I found difficult was (that) the people had the idea of the priest being the leader, and it was difficult for them to transfer that idea onto somebody else,” she said. “They would ask (Father Hammond) about what’s going on, what do we do about this, and he would say, ‘I don’t know, she’s the leader.'”
It didn’t take long for things to fall into place.
“What happened is, the people and myself as leader fit hand in glove,” Sister McGill said. “We just fit together. The people were open and ready something new.”
She said one of the most satisfying gauges of success came during a recent chat with a parishioner.
“I asked a lady a couple weeks ago, ‘What did you learn the last 12 years?’ She said, ‘I remember when you first came, you told us we were the church. I had never heard that before. Now I know that we are the church and we now are taking responsibility for our church.’ That was something I really wanted to get across to the people, and apparently it did come across,” Sister McGill said.