By Father Kenneth J. Doyle
One in a series
The parish I serve as pastor has, within the last month, completed a merger. Since pastors around the country are facing similar situations (particularly in the Northeast), I thought that a recap of our own experience might be helpful and could save some stress.
I can’t claim credit myself for engineering what I think has been a successful transition; other people did far more work on this than I did. It helped, too, that the direction of the merger seemed to be evident from the start. A church one mile down the street from us was averaging 250 worshippers on a weekend, while our own church drew nearly 1,300, due largely to the outward flow of Catholics from the cities. (And the pastor of the closing church made things much easier by preparing his people well for the transition.)
When the mergers were first announced in January of this year (33 churches in the diocese were slated to close or merge — about 20 percent of our worship sites), our first move on the local level was to form a transition team, consisting of six representatives of each of our two parishes. That team’s first task was to help select a new name for the merged parish. The team proposed to the parishioners of both churches, in their bulletins on the same weekend, several possible choices, explaining the rationale for each one. Parishioners could then mark a ballot, selecting one of the choices offered or making their own suggestion.
A fair number of parishioners wanted some combination of the names of the two churches — St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena. But the transition team saw from the ballots (and the accompanying comments) that any attempt to preserve the original patronesses would only perpetuate division. (Some comments argued that the older church, the one that was closing, should come first in the combined name; others argued, even more strongly, that the surviving church should predominate.) It was quickly evident that the unifying move was to pick a brand-new name, so that everyone would begin on an equal footing.
The team determined that a second vote should be held, asking parishioners to choose among the top three choices which did not involve the old names. In that re-vote, there was a clear winner — Mater Christi, a name which also had a local connotation because it was the name of the former diocesan seminary, which had been located in the same neighborhood.
Next came a letter from me, as pastor of the merged parish, to all registered members of both churches, telling them of the start of the new parish and inviting each of them to return a card indicating their desire to be a part of this new faith community, Mater Christi. That was followed by a letter to all ministers at both parishes — catechists, lectors, ushers, eucharistic ministers, home visitors, etc. — encouraging them to “re-up” for those ministries at the new parish.
Next came the signage on all parish buildings, a key factor in making people feel welcome, and all of that was changed quickly in preparation for the opening Mass for Mater Christi Parish.
Some of the furnishings from the closing church were moved to the surviving one — statuary, in particular, photos of former pastors, etc. — to ease the transition. A large artistic banner was fashioned and placed in the sanctuary, showing the facades of both churches cupped tenderly in the hands of the divine, with the name of the new parish displayed below.
The opening liturgy was joyful and unifying — a choir combined from the two churches, ministers from both parishes, a procession carrying sacramental records and communion vessels from St. Teresa’s and St. Catherine’s.
That liturgy was followed by a celebratory picnic on the church grounds, hosted by the confirmation candidates from both churches. (I’m still in the picnic director’s doghouse; I had told her to prepare for 200 people since, I said, a lot of people would go straight home after Mass to watch football; instead, 550 hungry people showed up — to my great surprise but also my delight.)
There is still, of course, some sadness over the merger and some adjustment yet to be made; it is not an easy thing to give up the place where, for years, you have known peace; where you were baptized and married perhaps; the church from which your parents were buried. But there are no public protests, no sit-ins and a good deal of enthusiasm for celebrating an enthusiastic liturgy in a full church. (Our average weekend attendance a year ago was 1,295; this month it has been 1,548.)
Much of that success is due to the two-and-a-half years of diocesan planning, with representatives of each parish meeting in clusters to suggest the new configurations and the bishop accepting virtually each of their recommendations. But the rest of the success is due to the resilience of Catholics who view things realistically, who adapt flexibly and who value their faith far more than their buildings.
Father Doyle, a priest of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y., has served as pastor of a large suburban parish for the last 17 years; he is also chancellor of the diocese for public information. Ordained in 1966, he has also been a high school religion teacher, editor of a diocesan newspaper, bureau chief in Rome for Catholic News Service, lawyer/lobbyist for the New York State Catholic Conference and director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.