Nearly three years ago, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., implemented Faith in Our Future, an initiative to help parishes meet the stark realities of a changing Church in the Diocese of Trenton with hope and a well-thought-out plan for the future.
Formally launched at the start of Advent 2015, the process identified each of 107 parishes as belonging to one of 25 Cohorts of neighboring parishes. Following 18 months of consultation and conversation in town hall-style meetings, Cohort deliberations and the work of the diocesan Planning Commission, Bishop O’Connell chose Jan. 25, 2017, the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, to announce his decisions in response to recommendations made as part of the FIOF pastoral planning process. The Bishop called for a range of new models for selected locations, including merger, linkage, the suspension of operations in a few churches and the designation of Centers for Cultural Ministry.
For the past year, the FIOF process has been in the first implementation stage to ensure the Bishop’s decisions for the parishes are fulfilled.
In April of this year, Bishop O’Connell announced the pastors and new names of the parishes set to merge July 1 as part of the FIOF decisions. The mergers will bring to 99 the number of parishes in the Diocese.
Story by Mary Morrell, Correspondent
As 14 parishes across the Diocese are poised for July 1 – when they will become seven new merged communities – a sense of hope is almost palpable.
So, it is no surprise that many of those involved in these mergers speak often of the word “hope.”
“The new name for our merged parish is Our Lady of Hope. The name is very apropos,” said Father Peter James Alindogan, pastor of the merging parishes of St. Jerome, West Long Branch, and St. Mary, Deal. “We have hopes that everything will work out smoothly blending two parishes with two personalities and both with rich histories.”
Our Lady of Hope is one of seven parish mergers, and one of six merged parishes that are adopting new names as part of the Diocese’s multi-year Faith in Our Future pastoral planning initiative.
Father Daniel E. Kirk, a member of the FIOF commission and pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Cinnaminson, stressed, “The hope of any parish merger … is to take the history and culture of the existing parishes and bring them together in such a way that they are not lost. Within that, it is also vital to see in these mergers an opportunity to not only honor the past, but also to forge ahead in a new, shared direction.”
For Father Dean Gaudio, pastor of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish, Avon, and Ascension Parish, Bradley Beach, coming together under the name of St. Teresa of Calcutta Parish, hope is more a surety that “eventually things will work out, and St. Elizabeth and Ascension will come together as one parish. They are both great communities. Naturally, it just might take a little time, but eventually we will be one.”
Father Joseph Farrell, who will pastor the new parish of St. Isidore the Farmer, a merger of the parishes of Assumption, New Egypt, and St. Andrew, Jobstown, noted the steady effort during the past year to bring two distinct parishes with “deep roots and long histories together into one family.”
The new parish name, which surfaced from a significant survey of parishioners, has engendered excitement in the people who are now trying to find out about the saint, even looking for an image of him for modern farmers, said Father Farrell, noting the largely rural community and its history of farming.
One significant success for Our Lady of Hope Parish came out of a significant challenge, said Father Alindogan, who also serves as diocesan director of missions. He explained that St. Mary Parish had a school that closed about 10 years ago. St. Jerome Parish still has a school, so all parishioners now have to accept the reality of supporting a school, financially and practically.
Inspired by the merger, a St. Mary parishioner felt called to volunteer in St. Jerome School to do some artwork with the children. His enthusiasm has spilled over into the weekly bulletin, where he publishes a reflection question entitled H.O.P.E. (Here’s One Positive Encouragement).
Father Kirk identified an early success in “the work that has been done with the soon-to-be St. Isidore the Farmer Parish. The parish name alone … and the approach of allowing the communities to interact in limited but significant ways over the course of the last year contribute to it, as well.”
He noted keeping both religious education programs and offering families options that work for them, common social events and a combined bulletin.
Shared liturgies and social events, including picnics, festivals and dinners; joint committees, councils, websites, communication venues, and even new parish logos are among the many tools for change embraced by parishes as they moved toward mergers.
Father Gaudio noted the incremental successes of the past year highlighting, in particular, the town hall meetings and monthly prayer services for the success of the merger. “Having the year to prepare for the merger helped things go smoothly,” he said.
Father Farrell, who sees the future as a time for “easing into the merger,” noted, in particular, the success of the joint parish council, which over the year, not only met to work together but whose members came to really like each other. “There’s lots of laughter at the PC meetings,” said Father Farrell.
Similar preparation strategies were undertaken in St. Joseph and Jesus the Lord Parishes, Keyport. Through shared social events, “We have had great success with being able to get both campus’ parishioners together. We have started to have ministries work together, as well,” said Cathy Strauss, speaking on behalf of Father Rene Pulgarin, pastor of the soon-to-be Our Lady of Fatima Parish. Strauss is also a member of the pastoral and temporal check-list team, working closely with the pastor, teams and staff during the FIOF process.
Challenges and Process
Reflecting on the challenges of the merger, Father Gaudio said, “Naturally, people do not like change, but the majority of the people understand why this is happening and are excited for the opportunities that are available in the future.”
Jessica Donohue, director of religious education in Sacred Heart Parish, Mount Holly, and member of the FIOF Implementation Commission, identified one of the practical challenges of the process as finding times for meetings.
“All of the people who I have met through the process have one thing in common: they are all very faithful people who are deeply involved in the life of the parish, so schedule-wise it can be challenging to find time to get together. But when we do, it is just inspiring to be with other people who have a real love for and dedication to their churches,” she said.
Stephen McCarthy, a check-list team member in St. Catharine of Siena Parish, Seaside Park, acknowledged the unique challenges faced by the new St. Junipero Serra Parish.
“St. Catharine of Siena, Seaside Park, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Seaside Heights, are staffed by Conventual Franciscan Friars. Their province, Our Lady of the Angels, only announced last week the new pastor reassignments,” he said. “Both Father John from St. Catharine and Father Bart at OLPH will be reassigned to new parishes. Their new assignments begin Aug. 1, one month after our merger. The timing of the merger and pastor reassignments have created challenges that will need to be worked out over the summer months, a busy time for seasonal parishes like ours.”
The new pastor for the merged parish of St. Junipero Serra will be starting on that date, as well, said McCarthy, who noted, “He is fluent in Spanish, a helpful trait as we are evaluating the OLPH location for designation as a Center for Hispanic Ministry by January 2020.”
Marking the Date
Parishes are planning a variety of celebrations and events in light of the July 1 mergers.
A planning team for St. Teresa of Calcutta Parish has been arranging the inaugural Mass celebration on July 1 with a reception to follow, said Father Gaudio, noting also that new signs are in the process of being made for outside the churches, statues of St. Teresa are planned for both locations and banners are ordered for the opening Mass. “We have invited the Missionary of Charity Sisters in Asbury Park,” he said.
A bilingual Mass will be celebrated for Our Lady of Fatima Parish in St. Joseph Church July 1, followed by a luncheon, Strauss said.
Our Lady of Hope Parish will celebrate an opening Mass on Sept. 9 in St. Jerome Church, said Father Alindogan.
St. Isidore the Farmer Parish will hold a parish picnic in October, similar to the one held in September 2017. That picnic, following Mass, marked the official beginning of the journey the two parishes would make together after being linked July 1, 2017, as part of the FIOF initiative.
“Merging parishes is not an easy endeavor,” Father Kirk said. “Yet our Catholic faith has a universal character to it. As important as it is to be connected and feel a part of a particular community, there is more to our family of faith.”