By Mary Stadnyk, Associate Editor, and Georgiana Francisco, Correspondent
When Deacon Walter Karpecik realized that St. Katharine Drexel Parish, Burlington, would observe the 10th anniversary of its establishment this year, he thought something should be done to commemorate the milestone.
Deacon Karpecik’s idea came to fruition May 18 when several hundred parishioners joined their pastor, Father Christopher Piccolo, and parochial vicar, Father Michael Kennedy, in St. Paul School for a celebration that not only marked the 10th anniversary of the creation of the St. Katharine Drexel Parish but also gave thanks to God for the time, patience and camaraderie that went into bringing Burlington’s two Catholic faith communities – St. Paul and All Saints – together to create one vibrant community.
“Mergers are never easy, but they make the new parish stronger in the long run,” said Deacon Karpecik, referring to when All Saints and St. Paul Parishes participated in the Northern Burlington Deanery Study.
“There were rough waters in the beginning, and although we were only a half-mile apart, we were light years apart in culture and size and had rarely intermingled,” he said.
St. Katharine Drexel Parish is one of numerous parishes in the Diocese that were created through the merging of former parishes. Since the early 2000s, the Diocese has conducted several studies like the Northern Burlington Deanery Study within the four counties with the goal of examining a particular area’s pastoral challenges and planning for the future.
As 14 faith communities prepare for a major reorganization through the diocesan pastoral planning Faith In Our Future initiative on July 1, parish staffs that had been part of previous mergers shared their experiences and challenges and offered words of support to their faithful counterparts.
A Decade Together
Like St. Katharine Drexel Parish, Resurrection Parish, Delran, is commemorating the 10th anniversary of its establishment with a picnic July 1. Resurrection, also part of the deanery study, was created in 2008 from the merger between Holy Name Parish, Delran, and St. Casimir Parish, Riverside.
Since arriving as pastor three years ago, Father John C. Garrett can only base Resurrection’s merger success on stories he has heard and his own observations. He said that while the new entity had to face challenges such as consolidation of offices, staff changes and new Mass times, the overall coming together of the two parish communities has been positive.
“Both parishes had proud histories,” he said. “People had put their blood, sweat and tears into building both parishes and in making them communities of faith. I am convinced it was because of the strengths of both Holy Name and St. Casimir that Resurrection has succeeded.”
Father Garrett noted that he is pleased to see parishioners traveling between the two worship sites regularly based on the schedule of Masses and sacramental celebrations.
“While there are some who continue to say, ‘I’m from St. Casimir’ or ‘I’m from Holy Name,’ the vast majority say ‘I’m from Resurrection.’ There has been a real embracing of the new parish identity and a true sense of pitching in and working together. This is something which should be celebrated.”
Similarly, Father Mark Crane said St. Thomas More Parish has witnessed success ever since the Manalapan parish and Our Lady of Mercy Parish, Englishtown, merged into a single entity July 1, 2007. One of the positives he noted has been the scheduling of an equal number of Masses between the two churches.
It’s been 13 years since the Trenton Ward Study and Msgr. Thomas N. Gervasio’s involvement in bringing together two Hamilton Township parishes – Our Lady of Sorrows and St. Anthony. As pastor of the combined Our Lady of Sorrows-St. Anthony Parish, he fully appreciates the merging process, not to mention the changes and challenges that go along with it.
Msgr. Gervasio smiles as he talks about some of the highlights that have resulted since the July 1, 2005 merger – welcoming members of the Haitian community and the parish’s ability to meet its pastoral needs; joint bilingual liturgical celebrations with the Haitian community; the joint campaign to renovate Our Lady of Sorrows Church and the addition of an elevator in St. Anthony Church; the successful “merger” of various ministries and organizations, and the blessings of being able to use and maintain both campuses on a daily basis.
Among the challenges both clergy and faithful have encountered, he noted, was the need for ongoing, clear communication.
“People dealt with changes better when the reasons were provided rather than imposed,” he said. Other issues he dealt with included questions about finances, as both communities were concerned about the use of financial assets they were bringing to the merger; providing a workable Mass and Confession schedule, and “dealing with perceptions.”
“Despite our best efforts to be balanced, parishioners complained that the pastor or other parish leaders preferred one church over the other,” he said.
Msgr. Gervasio acknowledged the effects of the merger continue to be felt 13 years later.
“Some accepted it readily and willingly; a segment was hostile or unreceptive; the majority still see themselves as associated with their particular parish as if the merger never took place,” he said.
Words of Wisdom
Representatives of merged parishes also shared advice to those that are anticipating mergers on July 1.
John Lontz of St. Katharine Drexel Parish and Grand Knight of the Burlington Council, Knights of Columbus, said, “In spite of some of the difficulties we encountered, it’s best to remember that we go to church to worship God. It doesn’t matter where we go to Mass – it’s why we go to Mass.”
“We may have had some unpleasant feelings, but parishioners soon realize this is the world in which we now live. A merger can present the opportunity to meet new people and friends and to have a stronger, better serviced and better functioning parish than before,” Lontz said.
Patience and prayer are needed when dealing with a merger, Father Crane said.
A successful merger is not going to happen overnight, Father Crane said, “but it can work.”
Having been ordained only a year, Father Kennedy said serving in a parish that had experienced a merger 10 years ago is “better than I could have ever imagined.”
“I would never be able to tell that there had been two parishes with different cultures,” he said. “Considering the ethnicity and the history, there still is an emphasis on the combined identity of St. Katharine Drexel.”
Commenting on an advantage of mergers, Father Kennedy acknowledged the reality of parishes becoming “more strapped” when it comes to priestly responsibilities, ministries and funds.
“Rather than having to close parishes, merging is a much better way to go. It’s hard, but better than the alternative,” he said.
After experiencing the pros and cons of a merger in St. Katharine Drexel Parish, Deacon Karpecik said the “end result is more powerful than two parishes struggling to stay alive.”
“Parishioners have got to go into it with open minds and hearts and accept the inevitable. We tried our best to combine the traditions with which parishioners were familiar and make them both comfortable,” he said, noting that to help the merger process along, he created the phrase, “Working together through Christ for all.”
“We’re a much stronger, closer community,” he said. “It really happened!”
Similarly, Msgr. Gervasio was pragmatic when offering a few tips. “Expect resistance; accept the fact that we cannot make everyone happy; don’t impose changes without extensive consultation and explanation; aim to be balanced in the use of facilities and scheduling, provide regular financial reports; respect the traditions and histories of both communities; don’t compare/contrast communities or churches,” he said. Most importantly, “keep the merger in prayer and have a good sense of humor.”