Bishop Matthew H. Clark decreed March 16 that St. Mary of the Lake Parish in Ontario would join with Church of the Epiphany in Sodus and its mission church, St. Rose of Lima in Sodus Point, to form one new parish, St. Maximilian Kolbe Catholic Church Society of Wayne County.
"This decision is made after considering the mutual relationship among these communities, the pastoral advantage of amalgamation of these communities and the good of souls," Bishop Clark wrote in the decree.
The three former parishes arrived at this point through the usual diocesan pastoral-planning process. Parish representatives worked together with diocesan planning-group liaison Deborah Housel to explore their options for the future. But they also received some help from one unlikely source: the youth of the parishes.
Under the guidance of youth minister Corey Ginett, teens from St. Mary, Epiphany and St. Rose spent several months researching various saints and compiling a list of potential patrons for the new parish. They eventually whittled down the list to three names, which they presented to the rest of the parishioners for a vote. After the votes were tallied, St. Maximilian Kolbe handily beat out his two competitors, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, Ginett said.
"He did win by quite a bit," she said of the saint, who volunteered to die in place of a stranger in the Nazi-run Auschwitz concentration camp in 1941.
The amalgamation was years in the making. Parishioners from the three churches began working together and holding combined events in 2001. More collaborative events, listening sessions, sacramental preparation and combined pastoral-council meetings soon followed and, in June 2007, the churches formed a cluster with a single pastor and a new weekend Mass schedule. Housel likened this period to a couple’s engagement period before marriage.
"We find clustering first helps. It’s like the engagement time, instead of going into being one without knowing about the other one’s finances and things," she said.
Less than two years after this engagement began, the parishes were ready to formally join together under a new name, and that’s where the parish youths came in. The pastoral council asked Ginett to help the youths come up with a list of potential names for the parish, a process Ginett started by bringing a book of modern-day saints to a youth-group meeting in January 2008.
Some of the teens initially suggested certain saints because they liked the way their monikers sounded, but Ginett urged them to put a little more thought into the task and choose a saint they could be proud of and whose life had special meaning for them.
The teens immediately liked the name of St. Maximilian Kolbe, recalled 18-year-old Emily Thurston, who participated in the selection process.
"It just sounded nice. It seemed like it was long enough to encompass all the parishes," said Thurston, now a freshman at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva.
When the teens learned how St. Maximilian died they were convinced he was a contender. They also were impressed to learn that the man saved by the saint in Auschwitz had died only about 13 years earlier, which made it easier for the teens to relate to St. Maximilian, Ginett said.
"He was around when there were automobiles and telephones," she said. "When these kids think of saints they think of ancient people. That was a big thrill to them."
During the next few months the teens added names to their list and deleted names when the saints were rejected by their peers, their pastor, Father Symon Peter Ntaiyia, or diocesan officials. St. Michael and St. Patrick, for example, were taken off the list because Wayne County already has two churches by each name, Ginett said. She said she began rooting for St. Maximilian when some of her early favorites were cut from the list.
"It’s like "American Idol." You have your favorite, but as soon as they get voted off you’ve got to find a new favorite," Ginett said.
St. Maximilian was always a favorite among the teens, and in November 2008 the adults casting votes showed that they agreed.
"I actually wanted him to win because I think St. Max sounds pretty good," said 17-year-old Justin Ghyzel, one of the teens who helped choose the name.
The process helped the teens from the three churches feel more connected to each other and to their parish, said Justin, who’s looking forward to spending the future in a parish he helped name. It was appropriate for the youths to play such a large role in the parish’s future, he said.
"We’re the future of the parish, so if we’re going to be in it the longest I just think it would be better for the youth to do it," he said.
"The church was giving the torch to the children. It was not just choosing the name, it was choosing the name that we were going to unite under," Thurston added. "It means more that everyone got to be a part of it."