Although only a few miles lay between them, the Catholic parishes in Cato, Port Byron and Weedsport once seemed worlds apart to their parishioners 30 years ago. In the 1980s, however, St. Patrick’s Parish in Cato, St. John’s Parish in Port Byron and St. Joseph’s Parish in Weedsport began to work together, forming the Northern Cayuga Cluster. On July 7, their union became complete as they officially merged to become the new Our Lady of the Snow Parish.
Within the former cluster, the churches had operated as three separate entities — maintaining three separate sets of financial and sacramental records — but sharing a pastor and a single religious-education program, according to Kathleen Timerson, office assistant at Our Lady of the Snow.
Most of the individual parishes’ committees and organizations began to combine after the clustering, Timerson said. The only notable exceptions are the three altar-rosary societies, which have remained separate because each is concerned with the maintenance of an individual church building, she said.
About two years ago, parish leaders began looking into the possibility of becoming a single canonical parish with three worship sites. In September 2003, Father Malachy Nwosu, pastor, presented the idea at a Knights of Columbus meeting and later discussed it with the leaders of the three altar-rosary societies, who “put feelers out” into the parishes, Timerson said. The cluster’s pastoral council then created a subcommittee charged with the task of researching the idea.
One of the subcommittee’s first acts was to seek the advice of pastoral leaders and parishioners who had successfully gone through similar processes at their own parishes, said Timerson, a member of the subcommittee. Among those whose counsel the subcommittee sought were members of the five-church Good Shepherd Catholic Community in southern Cayuga County and Father William Moorby, pastor of St. Patrick Church in Owego as well as the five-church Blessed Trinity Parish in Tioga County.
“We invited Father Moorby here and he came and he shared his experiences and what they did,” Timerson said. Then we invited some of the members of the Good Shepherd Catholic Community to (share) what they did, what problems they had along the way. They were very informative.”
Subcommittee members also asked parishioners what questions they had about the concept of and process for becoming a single parish, researched answers to those questions and printed them in a bulletin insert, she added. Subcommittee member Joan McCadden said the merger process has been successful. This is largely due, she said, to parish leaders’ willingness to hear parishioners’ concerns, share as much information with them as possible and involve them in the process.
Parishioners were especially involved in establishing the parish’s new name, McCadden said. Invited to suggest names for the new parish, parishioners submitted so many that the cluster staff ended up sending a list of more than 70 suggestions to Bishop Matthew H. Clark. He then narrowed down the list to three possibilities, on which parishioners then voted.
“Our Lady of the Snow ended up being the clear majority winner. People were really hyped up about the name. I think you have to live here to understand,” Timerson said.
The area gets a lot of snow each year, so the parish’s new name is quite appropriate, McCadden said.
“We had a feeling Our Lady of the Snow would be chosen,” she added.
McCadden and Timerson were encouraged by the fact that so many people supported the new name, and said most people have reacted positively to the merger. The majority recognize that times are changing and that parishioners have to do what’s necessary to keep their churches open and vibrant, Timerson said.
“It’s just beneficial for us to be one parish now instead of three individual ones,” she said.
One benefit came in the consolidation of financial and sacramental records, but the average parishioner will see very little change in the day-to-day operations of the parish, Timerson said, noting that each church is expected to remain open and that Mass times are not expected to change in the near future.
Parishioner John Baker said he was completely in favor of the merger.
“As single churches, years ago, I didn’t venture out to Weedsport or Port Byron,” said Baker, who belonged to St. Patrick’s. “I now feel comfortable in all three churches. It has really brought the people together. We have a community that would be the envy of a lot of churches, I think.”
Uniting members of the three former parishes was one of the goals of the merger process, McCadden said.
“I think that the hope was that we could come together even more as an individual parish and not be separated as much by our individualities,” she said. “The dynamics in each parish are kind of specific to that locality, but … the Catholic Church is the Catholic Church.”