EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the seventh in an occasional series on how Southern Tier parishes are dealing with challenges brought on by consolidation.
Having operated as a cluster since 1989, Schuyler Catholic Community is well-versed in the art of sharing resources as called for by the diocesan pastoral-planning process. For starters, each paid staff members has dual responsibilities for both St. Mary of the Lake Church in Watkins Glen and St. Benedict in Odessa.
“That’s pretty much the way it’s always been,” said Father Paul Bonacci, pastor since 2001.
The Schuyler cluster belongs to the massive Chemung/Schuyler Planning Group, which also encompasses eight churches in Chemung County as well as five college-campus, correctional-facility and hospital faith communities. Schuyler often operates as its own entity — not as an attempt to buck the planning process, but more from a sense of reality.
St. Mary of the Lake is located in the heart of Watkins Glen, and St. Benedict is six miles to the southeast. The Chemung parishes, for the most part, are some 15 to 20 miles further south. Father Bonacci noted, for example that a youth event for the entire planning group would be a logistical challenge.
“We cover the entire Schuyler County. It’s possible that parents might have to drive an hour to Elmira for a two- or three-hour event, then an hour home. It’s not like a kid can call home when an event is done and say, ‘Come pick me up,'” Father Bonacci explained. “At the regional council meetings we share prayers, ideas, spirituality, and collective wisdom and gifts. As far as sharing the programs, it’s difficult because of the geography.”
“We do have to isolate ourselves in that regard. (Doing otherwise) just doesn’t physically make sense,” said Elizabeth Duane, who represents St. Mary of the Lake on the regional planning committee. Pam Cicconi is the representative for St. Benedict’s.
Nonetheless, Duane observed that groupwide collaboration is on the rise.
“To the extent that it’s possible, I think we’re doing it,” she said. “Personally, I’ve seen the reciprocity grow between Chemung and Schuyler when it comes to (parish) missions, things of that nature. Women’s groups in our community see people from the Chemung area come up from their churches.”
Duane and Father Bonacci noted that the weekly 5 p.m. Sunday Mass at St. Patrick Church in Elmira is another example of pooling together.
“What I have enjoyed is watching the growing popularity among members of the Schuyler Catholic Community to use that Mass as a way to fulfill their obligation,” Duane said.
The most notable recent activity within Chemung/Schuyler has been the formation of six Elmira churches into two three-church clusters in 2006 — “a major occurrence in pastoral planning,” according to Father Bonacci. Three of those churches — St. Anthony, St. Patrick and St. Paul — this year became a single parish known as Blessed Sacrament. Father Bonacci doesn’t foresee any changes of similar magnitude to St. Mary of the Lake or St. Benedict — but even so, he said Schuyler is keeping its eye on the future.
“We’re looking at doing our own parish pastoral planning — where does God want us in five years, where does God want us in 10 years?” Father Bonacci said.
“You never know, five or six years down the road, what will happen. But we feel we’re solid and sound,” added Tom Powers, president of the Schuyler parish pastoral council.
St. Mary of the Lake and St. Benedict are two of only three Catholic churches in all of Schuyler County (the third, St. Pius X in Van Etten, belongs to the Tioga Planning Group). St. Mary of the Lake, founded in 1846, offers Sunday Masses at 8 and 10 a.m. The only weekend Mass at St. Benedict, opened in 1955, is at 5 p.m. Saturday. St. Mary of the Lake’s pastor has traditionally overseen St. Benedict as well. The parishes also have received sacramental support over the years from Franciscan priests at the former St. Anthony of Padua Minor Seminary and Prep School in Watkins Glen. In fact, Father Austin Budnick, OFM, continues to serve the community after more than 50 years.
Powers reported flawless collaboration between St. Mary of the Lake and St. Benedict, with no evidence of territorialism.
“We’ve never had that problem that I’m aware of. On Saturday you see St. Mary’s people at St. Benedict’s, and on Sunday you see St. Benedict’s people at St. Mary’s,” he said.