EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in an occasional series on how Southern Tier parishes are dealing with challenges brought on by consolidation.
Since formally joining forces in 2003, the half-dozen churches in Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parishes have emphasized togetherness despite the many miles they cover.
"Right from the beginning, one of the things we looked at was the ‘strength of six’ — trying to do the best thing to minister to all the people in the six sites," said Father William Moorby, pastor.
Furthering this effort was a recent series of town meetings held by the Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parish pastoral council after Sunday Masses. The sessions took place at St. Patrick Church in Owego and St. James in Waverly on Feb. 11; St. Francis of Assisi in Catatonk and St. John the Evangelist in Newark Valley on Feb. 18; and St. Pius X in Van Etten and St. Margaret Mary in Apalachin on Feb. 25. All are located in Tioga County except St. Pius X, which is in Chemung County.
The meetings drew more than 200 people in all. They sought to enhance communication and relationships between parishioners and staff, and also to provide a forum for questions and suggestions about current concerns.
"The tenor of the town meetings went well, and they are a good way of getting information to people and also listening to people," Father Moorby said.
One key topic is a proposed adjustment to the Sunday Mass schedule so that priests can travel fewer miles and be more available to parishioners after liturgies. Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick currently has 10 weekend Masses — two at each worship site except St. Francis and St. Pius X, which have one Mass each.
Although the proposal does not call for fewer Masses in the immediate future, Father Moorby said adjusting the schedule now will help ease the transition to a more limited schedule. That is expected to occur within the next few years, as the number of full-time priests in Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick declines from three to two. At that point, Father Moorby said, Sunday Mass would likely cease at some of the worship sites.
"We haven’t gone to that step yet, but yes, it’s a high possibility," he said.
One parochial vicar, Father William Coffas, is expected to leave the parishes this June at the end of the three-year priest internship following his 2004 ordination. A replacement for Father Coffas is expected, but Father Boniface Ewah, the other parochial vicar, is an extern priest from Nigeria and thus cannot be counted on for a long-term stay. Neither can Father Thomas Watts, who celebrates many of the Masses but is officially retired.
As a result of such uncertainty over priest staffing "it’s really hard to build a plan," said Christina Homrighouse, parish pastoral-council chair.
The town meetings also explored which programs and activities are being well-received, and what might be added; as well as what aspects of parish life promote spiritual health. Homrighouse acknowledged that Disciples in Mission — a three-year process that inspires parishes to evangelize — has been extremely well-received since its inception in early 2006.
"I think it is an excellent step in the right direction. It’s really kind of energizing, the idea that it’s not just you come to church and go home," Homrighouse said.
Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick is located in the southeast corner of the Rochester Diocese, bordering the dioceses of Syracuse and Scranton, Pa. Father Moorby said a total of approximately 2,000 families are registered with the six worship sites. There also is one Catholic school, St. Patrick in Owego, within Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick.
Reconfiguration of Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick has been an outgrowth of the pastoral-planning process begun across the diocese in the late 1990s. In 2003 the six church buildings were reclassifed as "worship sites," and staff and financial resources were combined.
These moves also have meant the occasional consolidation of building usage. Father Moorby noted that the convent at St. James and rectory at St. John were sold in recent years, and the former St. James School building in Waverly is in the process of being sold because it cannot generate enough rental income to cover maintenance costs.
Sale of the Waverly building will force the relocation of parish faith-formation and youth-group programs, as well the Catholic Charities Tioga Outreach Center and other agencies currently housed in the building.
Regarding the challenges facing Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick, Homrighouse said that in several instances "it’s not good news, but it’s also reality." She called for all parishioners to keep in mind what’s best for the entire Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick community.
"People are so focused on their own site. This idea of one church — it’s something we really need to work toward. We’re not quite there," she said, adding that at the town meetings "people had great ideas. What we really need is for them to make those things happen."