EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in an occasional series on how Southern Tier parishes are dealing with challenges brought on by consolidation.
Since assuming his pastorate, Father Patrick Van Durme has dealt with one major transition after another at Our Lady of the Valley Parish.
It began with the establishment of the parish itself, based on a pastoral plan that took effect when Father Van Durme arrived in mid-2004. Our Lady of the Valley was formed from four western-Steuben County parishes that had clustered in 1998: St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Ann Church, both in Hornell; St. Joachim in Canisteo; and St. Mary in Rexville. Whereas the former cluster of churches had shared a pastor and some staff members, the new parish saw the combining of all leadership, staff and finances.
At that point, Sunday Masses ceased at St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Joachim. In 2005 St. Joachim’s was converted into a base for Steuben County Rural Ministry, and the rectory was subsequently demolished. St. Ignatius Loyola is no longer in use and is likely to be sold.
Father Van Durme acknowledged that so much change in such a short time has been tough for parishioners. Yet he emphasized the need for a new beginning, likening the situation at Our Lady of the Valley to what Jesus’ followers faced after his resurrection as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.
"We are in that same boat. We are building a new church. We’re forging a new parish and we have to say, ‘What are the needs of this parish?’" Father Van Durme said. "If we get too locked into the past, we become imprisoned by our own history. Keeping things the way they were, because that’s what we like, it is not an option."
Bearing in mind those present-day needs, Our Lady of the Valley’s parish pastoral council approved three ad hoc committee recommendations at a March 28 meeting:
* Sell the St. Ignatius church building and parish offices as soon as possible, pending diocesan approval. The plan would see Our Lady of the Valley’s parish offices, currently at St. Ignatius, move into St. Ann School. Father Van Durme said it might be possible to rent the office to a social-service agency, but that the church itself would cost the parish too much in necessary repairs in order to be rented.
* Tear down and replace the rectory at St. Ann, or buy a smaller facility as a replacement. Father Van Durme explained that the 7,000-foot structure is too big for the projected number of occupants (three priests residing there now, no more than one likely in the future), and upkeep is costly due to the building’s age. He noted that the boiler recently blew up and "we were very, very lucky no one was hurt and there was not a fire."
* Develop specific, measurable and timely goals for St. Ann School to increase its fiscal viability and reduce the parish assessment. These goals would be met in the form of a three-year plan. Father Van Durme acknowledged that closing the school would help solve money issues, but that the parish doesn’t favor going that route: "We spend a lot of money on our school, but we’re not wasting money. The reality is, we’re a strong school with over 100 students. There’s no way the most jaded person can look at St. Ann School in Hornell and say it should be closed."
The ad hoc committee comprised 14 people: Father Van Durme; parishioners from all geographic areas of the parish; members of Our Lady of the Valley’s finance and parish pastoral councils; and representatives from St. Ann School. Several town meetings were conducted earlier this year so that parishioners could weigh in on recommendations as they developed.
"I can’t even tell you how many hours I spent praying and talking to people and having committee meetings, trying to figure this out. Nobody is excited about doing this," Father Van Durme remarked. But, he said, the changes also are vital based on a severe budget deficit that saw Our Lady of the Valley lose more than $150,000 last year and $60,000 the year before.
"We were on track to be completely bankrupt in three to five years," he said. Based on the impending changes, "it looks very good that by next year we will have a balanced budget."
Father Van Durme observed that circumstances are much different today than when the churches of Our Lady of the Valley were four autonomous parishes. They were established primarily during an era when "the whole Canisteo Valley was booming," particularly the railroad industry, and there were far more priests in the diocese.
Still, he said, the Catholic population in the area today is stable though not growing, and he maintains high hopes for Our Lady of the Valley’s future.
"Sometimes when you’re trimming the tree, you trim it down but it can grow again in a strong, healthy way," Father Van Durme said.