To address the ongoing challenge of serving the Catholic population with fewer priests, a total of eight parishes in the Steuben County area are reconfiguring effective this coming week.
In western Steuben, the newly formed Our Lady of the Valley Parish comprises St. Ann, Hornell; St. Ignatius Loyola, Hornell; St. Mary, Rexville; and St. Joachim, Canisteo. These churches had operated since 1998 as a cluster, the Roman Catholic Faith Community of the Canisteo Valley.
Just to the north, a similar process also is taking place. Holy Family Parish is made up of St. Joseph’s, Wayland; St. Pius V, Cohocton; Sacred Heart, Perkinsville; and St. Mary’s, Dansville. All are Steuben County churches except St. Mary’s, which is in southern Livingston County. This grouping, likewise, had been a cluster since 1998, when it took the name Holy Family Catholic Community.
Clustering has allowed parishes to share their priestly, staff and programming resources. This most commonly occurs when one full-time priest is assigned to serve two or more parishes. However, the new reconfigurations reflect an even greater integration. Rather than continuing as clusters of four distinct parishes, both Our Lady of the Valley and Holy Family now are single canonical parishes with multiple church buildings, or worship sites.
This process involves the combining of all staff, finances and parish pastoral councils. In addition, all affected parishes have forgone their individual identities. Although each church building will still be called by its original name, the parish once represented by that building has been formally dissolved.
William Pickett, director of the diocesan Office of Pastoral Planning, said this model gives planning groups a better chance of keeping all their church buildings open. Yet consolidation can also come at a price: At Our Lady of the Valley, only three of six weekend Masses are continuing — a Saturday and Sunday liturgy at St. Ann’s, the new parish’s largest church, and a Sunday Mass at St. Mary’s in Rexville. Sunday Masses have ceased for St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Joachim; they will only be used for such special events as weddings and funerals.
This move became necessary now that Nigerian Father Elias Menuba has fulfilled his three-year commitment as an extern, leaving Father Patrick VanDurme, the new pastor for Our Lady of the Valley, as the lone full-time priest. Bishop Matthew H. Clark also has mandated that — in accordance with canon law — priests say no more than three Masses each weekend.
In Holy Family Parish, Sunday Masses at all four churches will continue for at least the next year, due to the continued service of Holy Family’s extern priest, Kenyan Father Stephen Karani, who will assist the new pastor, Father Michael Schramel.
Holy Family is not expected to drop to one active priest until 2008. When that reduction occurs, two of the four churches will cease weekend Masses. Meanwhile, however, one significant change is taking place this year — the combining of Holy Family’s two Catholic schools. St. Joseph’s, Wayland, has closed in order to merge with St. Mary’s, Dansville, forming the new Holy Family School, which is located in the former St. Mary’s School building.
Retired priests — Fathers Robert Kanka and Paul Schnacky in Our Lady of the Valley, and Father Gennaro Ventura in Holy Family — also are key components in the newly formed parishes. In fact, the 85-year-old Father Ventura has served as temporary administrator of the four Holy Family faith communities in recent months while Father Stephen Kraus, the former pastor, was on sabbatical. However, pastoral planning does not assume that retired priests will perform the same level of duty as that of full-time priests.
Reconfiguration decisions at Our Lady of the Valley and Holy Family have been made by local pastoral-planning groups, based on information they’ve received from the diocese about projected availability of priests.
Due to the priest shortage, “We don’t have a lot of room for imagination. You have a lot better chance working with three other (faith communities). It makes the whole community stronger,” said Karen Rinefierd, diocesan pastoral-planning liaison for Holy Family Parish. Rinefierd said that closing churches was an option for both Holy Family and Our Lady of the Valley, but that step didn’t seem necessary because of the parishes’ solid overall financial situations.
Casey Lopata, planning liaison for Our Lady of the Valley who is set to retire on July 9, said that although member churches have willingly collaborated, worshipers at St. Ann, St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Joachim and St. Mary have experienced obvious growing pains.
“The tricky part of all this is transferring into a larger identity,” Lopata said. “You’re part of the larger group, but the local community identity is still a big part in all this.”
This model of forming a single canonical parish with multiple worship sites first occurred in the Rochester Diocese five years ago, when six parishes in southern Cayuga County reconfigured to form Good Shepherd Parish. The process was also enacted in Corning-Painted Post (All Saints Parish) in 2001 and Tioga County (Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick) in 2003.
Pickett said similar developments await other parts of the diocese in upcoming years, “given the number of pastoral leaders we have.” Projections indicate that the number of active diocesan priests will drop to approximately 62 by the year 2025 — about half the current total.