Later this month, Father James Fennessy will begin his first pastorate, leading the newly formed cluster of St. Patrick Parish in Seneca Falls and St. Mary Parish in Waterloo.
Serving one’s first pastorate as the inaugural leader of a new cluster might sound like a daunting task to some, but it doesn’t scare Father Fennessy. Rather, he sees it as an exciting opportunity and a way to help the cluster’s two parishes become even stronger and more vibrant.
“I think there’s a great spirituality in both parishes, and I think to work together on things like liturgies can only be a positive thing,” Father Fennessy said. “Unity is always better than separating, and I think one needs to look for the opportunities as opposed to what perceived losses there might be.”
Father Fennessy is no stranger to the pastoral-planning process or to the parish reconfiguration that often accompanies it. Since his ordination in 2002, he has served as parochial vicar for St. Stephen and St. Francis de Sales parishes in Geneva. Those two parishes clustered under one pastoral leader in the late 1990s, and until recently had been known as the Roman Catholic Community of Geneva.
The clustered parishes worked together for nearly a decade, sharing not only a pastor and parochial vicar, but also staff and a faith-formation program. In April the parishes completed all the civil and canonical requirements necessary to become a single new entity, Our Lady of Peace Parish.
The Geneva, Waterloo and Seneca Falls parishes are not the only ones in the midst of change. Elsewhere in the Diocese of Rochester, a number of parishes are in the process of clustering or merging to form new parishes, according to Karen Rinefierd and Deborah Housel, planning-group liaisons with the diocesan pastoral-planning office.
As of June 26, new clusters will be formed from the following parishes:
* Irondequoit’s Christ the King, St. Salome and St. Thomas the Apostle
* St. Matthew in Livonia and St. Mary in Honeoye
* St. Mary of the Lake in Ontario, Church of the Epiphany in Sodus and St. Rose of Lima in Sodus Point
* St. John the Evangelist in Clyde, St. Patrick in Savannah and St. Michael in Lyons
* St. Mary in Canandaigua and St. Bridget/St. Joseph in East Bloomfield
* St. Dominic in Shortsville, St. Felix in Clifton Springs and St. Francis in Phelps
In addition, the following parishes are working toward clustering within the next four years:
* St. Columba in Caledonia, St. Patrick in Mumford, St. Mary in Scottsville and St. Vincent DePaul in Churchville
* Our Lady of Lourdes in Brighton and St. Anne in Rochester
* Brighton’s Our Lady Queen of Peace and St. Thomas More
* Rochester’s St. Boniface and Blessed Sacrament
* St. Anne in Palmyra, St. Gregory in Marion and St. Patrick in Macedon
Still more parishes are in the process of amalgamating into single parishes or have recently done so, Rinefierd and Housel noted. St. Anthony, St. Patrick and Ss. Peter and Paul parishes in Elmira recently joined to form Blessed Sacrament Parish, and St. Thomas the Apostle in Red Creek, St. Mary Magdalene in Wolcott and St. Jude Chapel in Fair Haven — which have been clustered as the Catholic Community of the Blessed Trinity — are in the process of forming one parish.
Rochester’s St. Ambrose and St. John the Evangelist parishes and Irondequoit’s St. James Parish — which had been clustered as the Winton-Culver Catholic Community — recently completed the canonical part of their transformation into the new Peace of Christ Parish and will soon complete the civil portion of the process, Rinefierd said. The six parishes that form Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic Community in Yates, Ontario and Steuben counties also are in the process of merging to form a single parish, she noted.
In Rochester, Ss. Peter and Paul, St. Augustine and Our Lady of Good Counsel churches have closed, and those former parishes are in the final stages of uniting with St. Monica Parish to form a new parish, also named St. Monica, Housel said. Last year, five parishes in Geneseo, Leicester, Mount Morris, Nunda and Retsof merged to form St. Luke the Evangelist Parish, she added.
Path to unity
The pastoral-planning process both begins and ends with Bishop Matthew H. Clark, but in between, the parishioners have ample opportunity to help shape the plan and make their voices heard, Housel said. The bishop initially invites the planning groups to develop five-year pastoral plans for the churches they represent. The planning groups — including pastors, pastoral administrators, representatives from parish staffs and pastoral councils, and parishioners at large — then typically spend 18 months to three years putting together their plans, Rinefierd said.
One of the biggest factors driving such reconfigurations and the pastoral-planning process is the ongoing shortage of priests, she noted.
“At the same time, we have population shifts and demographic shifts we need to pay attention to. It’s just responding to changing realities,” she said.
Planning groups have to take these shifts into account when they’re planning their parishes’ futures, agreed Jim Weisbeck, chairman of the Northwest Ontario County Planning Group and executive director of Rochester’s Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. His group covers one of the few diocesan areas that is experiencing rapid population growth, so planning-group members had to take growing numbers into consideration — along with the size of existing church buildings — when forming their plan, he said.
Planning-group members also take into account such factors as the projected number of priests for their area through 2015, the distance between churches, the current number and location of weekend Masses, the number of households in each parish, the participation levels at each parish, and what ministries the parishes support, Housel said.
“The other critical thing that was right at the top of the priority list was to maintain a pastoral presence in each of the communities,” Weisbeck added. “That might mean there’s only one Mass, or there might not be a resident pastoral leader, but … we felt a responsibility to the churches and the greater community to keep that pastoral presence.”
Most planning groups invite parishioner input at nearly every step of the way, Housel and Rinefierd said. Many planning groups conduct town-hall meetings and listening sessions, at which parishioners can learn about proposed plans and ask questions.
Communication is a key to a successful pastoral-planning experience and to helping parishioners understand upcoming changes, said Father William Moorby, pastor of Tioga County’s Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parishes.
In 2003 five parishes in Van Etten, Waverly, Apalachin, Catatonk and Newark Valley united to form Blessed Trinity Parish, which clustered with St. Patrick Parish in Owego, Father Moorby said. The planning team solicited parishioner feedback about such issues as changes to the Mass schedule, and publicized a transition timeline so people would know what other changes were ahead.
“People knew in advance that two years down the road we’d have a central office and a combined bulletin,” Father Moorby said.
Knowing what changes lie ahead, however, doesn’t necessarily mean the transition will be easy, noted Christina Homrighouse, chair of Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick’s transition team and pastoral council.
“Some people were very unhappy. In fact, we lost a lot of people. It’s so hard to change,” Homrighouse said. “The irony is that those who moved across the border to nearby Catholic churches will also be facing similar changes as well, if they have not done so already.”
The terms “pastoral planning” and “clustering” often evoke fear in many parishioners’ minds, said Marie Leo, faith-formation coordinator at St. Patrick Parish in Seneca Falls and cochair of the St. Mary-St. Patrick pastoral-planning and transition teams.
“Everyone is so territorial and worried about their turf. They’re afraid that one parish is going to win and one is going to lose,” Leo said. “Seneca Falls and Waterloo have been rivals on the football field, on the basketball court, for many years and many generations. It’s always been Seneca Falls vs. Waterloo.”
Athletic rivalries aside, parishioners tend to strongly identify with their own parishes, and they’re afraid of losing that identity if their parishes cluster, merge or close, Father Fennessy said.
Contrary to what many parishioners may believe, diocesan officials usually do not mandate the closure of church buildings, Rinefierd said. Diocesan officials prefer such decisions to be made locally, as is often the case when parishes decide to spend their money on ministries instead of on maintaining old and sometimes empty buildings. Yet there are times when diocesan officials must intercede, she said.
“If a parish is unable to pay their bills, that direction (to close and perhaps sell a church) will come from the bishop’s office. Just like with any individual or any business, if you can’t pay your bills, that forces hard decisions,” Rinefierd said.
Perhaps the hardest transition aside from the closing of churches is changes to the schedule of Masses, Father Moorby said. Parishioners often have built their weekend schedules around a particular Mass, and they don’t want to have to rework their schedules or attend a Mass at the same time at a neighboring church.
On the other hand, Leo said she doesn’t have patience for Seneca Falls parishioners who tell her they don’t want to drive to Waterloo for Mass.
“I say, ‘Look, you drive down to Wal-Mart three or four times a week, and St. Mary’s is about two or three minutes past Wal-Mart,” she said.
Parish staff members also worry they’ll lose their jobs if their parishes cluster or merge, she added. Staff of the Seneca Falls and Waterloo parishes have been assured that there will be work for them after the clustering, although they might have to change their job descriptions a bit, she said.
“I have always said just pray and trust. God has a plan for us, and it’s not always our plan,” Leo said.
The transition team for Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parishes decided to tackle parishioners’ fears of losing their individual identities by coining a new slogan for the cluster: The strength of six.
“We decided to make it a priority to preserve each site’s uniqueness while trying to create a new identity for ourselves as a whole,” Homrighouse said.
It is important for parishioners to realize they’re all walking together in faith, noted Mercy Sister Marlene Vigna, pastoral associate at Rochester’s new Peace of Christ Parish.
“With this comes the growing sense that there is more held in common than that which differs. Once those relationships of trust have been established, then the sky is the limit,” Sister Vigna said.
Indeed, parishioners from clusters and newly consolidated parishes throughout the diocese have reaped unexpected benefits from the pastoral-planning process. The successful Pastoral Visitation Ministry — through which parishioners from each church in the Northwest Ontario County Planning Group visit and provide spiritual care to the ill and homebound — was born out of the first phase of pastoral planning, Weisbeck said.
Peace of Christ parishioner Jane Way said the merging process seemed painful at first, but she’s gained many new friends from the experience. Several of the ministries at her former parish, St. John the Evangelist, have expanded to include people from the other two former parishes, and she now recognizes these people when she meets them in the neighborhood.
“I think people discovered that we’re all the same everywhere and there’s absolutely no difference between the neighbors on either side of you and the neighbors in the next community over,” Leo added. “I think we began to really understand that we are part of the larger church. We’d seen ourselves with these small little borders, and we’re expanding them and they are only getting bigger and better.”
When parishes work together, their accomplishments often are bigger and better as well, she noted. The Geneva, Seneca Falls and Waterloo parishes shared a confirmation liturgy this past year, and Leo said it was the most beautiful confirmation celebration she’d ever seen.
“When you begin your collaboration you’ve got a lot of ideas and different traditions. It takes a lot more time to plan anything, but the end result is so much better,” Leo said.
“It’s exciting because we’re all trying to do the same thing, but we all come at it from different perspectives and it enriches us,” Way added.
The clustering process also has helped parishioners realize that they themselves — and not their brick-and-mortar churches — are the natural resources that make parishes vibrant and strong, said Lena Shipley, pastoral associate at St. Mary in Waterloo and cochair of the St. Mary-St. Patrick planning and transition teams.
As time goes by, parishioners are beginning to feel more comfortable at the various Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick worship sites and realize they’re part of a universal church, not just a parish, Father Moorby said.
“It’s kind of like having lots of extended family now. You know there are six places you can go to that feel like home in some way,” Homrighouse said.
Although parishioners are getting used to life in their cluster, there is still work to do, she said. The continuing priest shortage and the eventual possibility of church closings means Catholics will have to work hard to maintain the moral and spiritual health of their church.
They won’t be working alone, however. Shipley believes the Holy Spirit is guiding the pastoral-planning process to ensure the future viability of the church.
“If hearts remain open … this pastoral-planning process can be the fruit of Jesus’ prayer that all might be one as he and the father are one,” she said.