Gain outweighs loss for St. Paul parish after 2006 tri-parish merger

| July 28, 2010 | 0 Comments

When Marcia Kremer, 62, heard in 2000 that her parish in St. Paul, St. Gregory, would merge with nearby St. Leo and St. Therese to form a single parish, her first reaction was disbelief, she said.

“This parish has been here, and we really like the way we’re doing things, and all of a sudden that’s going to change,” she said. “Anytime you have a big change . . . it takes time to process.”

However, Kremer eased her sense of loss by joining committees focused on uniting the parishes. She said that teaching in the North St. Paul public school system for 34 years taught her to accept change.

“Even though I wasn’t completely happy about it, I?knew that I?needed to accept and become involved in the process of change,” she said. “Rather than sit back and watch it all happen and complain about it, it’s more important to become involved and take some ownership.”

Today, the merged parish, Lumen Christi Catholic Community in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood, boasts a vibrant community, and it’s hard for Kremer to recall something she misses at St. Gregory, she said.

“Whatever I had there has continued to exist, or has reinvented itself at Lumen Christi, because I’ve had the opportunity to become involved in programs,” she said.

When Archbishop John Nienstedt announces the strategic plan for parishes and schools in October, other parishes in the archdiocese may be asked to merge with neighboring parishes, said Jim Lundholm-Eades.

Facing future mergers

Lundholm-Eades is a member of the 16-member Strategic Task Force which prepared recommendations for the archdiocese’s future for Archbishop Nienstedt. With the help of the archdiocesan Parish Services Team, the task force has been collecting data and ideas since the archbishop announced the initiative in March 2009.

For Lumen Christi, merging three parishes required parishioners to “let go of things,” including identifying oneself as a member of his or her former parish, Kremer said.

“That took a while,” Kremer recalls.

The change was difficult for Anne Maley, 48, who worshipped at St. Gregory with her family.

“There were very different personalities in the three different parishes,” she said.  “It was hard to let go, because you had these little traditions, and these rituals and these special things that made up your whole worship.”
Each parish ritualized the process of saying goodbye through special liturgies and events honoring its founders and traditions — an approach that was especially important to Maley.

“I have to ritualize it. I have to have my endings and have my new beginnings,” she said.

Time took care of most of the transition’s challenges, Kremer said. She schedules lectors, and she used to be careful not to schedule two lectors from the same former parish to read at a single Mass. She never thinks about that anymore, she said.

Coming together over time

St. Gregory, St. Leo and St. Therese joined together as a “cluster” in 1994.

In this new arrangement, they shared pastors, did not duplicate Mass times, and coalesced parishioners’ gifts and skills. Calling themselves Highland Catholic Community, the parishes eventually began to share a bulletin.

In 1997, the parishes reorganized the use of their buildings so that each was a center of a certain part of parish life. St. Leo became an administration center, St. Gregory became the educational center, and St. Therese became the activity and outreach center.

When Father John Bauer became Highland Catholic Community’s pastor in 1999, he began working to merge the parishes.

Susan McMahon, 68, attributes the merger’s success to Father Bauer, who now is rector of the Basilica of St. Mary and co-chair of the archdiocesan strategic planning task force with Father Peter Laird, vicar general.

Father Bauer structured a collaborative, respectful process for Lumen Christi during what he knew would be a difficult time, said McMahon, who attended St. Therese.

“He had committees for everything, even what artifacts would go from different churches to put them together,” she said.

Windows from St. Gregory and the crucifix from St. Therese were among some of the things the two parishes brought with them to Lumen Christi, which is in the building that was formerly St. Leo.

“I felt it was just unrushed, and [Father Bauer] was so thorough about it and respectful of the varied feelings and reactions people had,” McMahon added.

Importance of new space

In December 2004, St. Leo closed for renovation. It reopened in March 2005 as Lumen Christi. St. Gregory closed in May 2005, and St. Therese closed in February 2006. Archbishop Harry Flynn dedicated Lumen Christi in April 2006.

The renovation was helpful to the transition, Maley said, because it felt like something new for everyone, and not two churches joining a third.

Now the parish has a large gathering space, community room and daily Mass chapel in addition to the church.

The renovation also included a kitchen outfitted for the pancake breakfasts beloved by those from St. Therese and space, including showers, for a program for homeless families.

“Our core values of the parish took physical form,” Maley added.

The large gathering space also fosters community. People linger in the gathering space before and after Mass at Lumen Christi, which was never possible before at the smaller St. Gregory, Kremer said.

Loss, but also gain

Being part of a larger parish means more available resources for the parish and the school, McMahon said.

“All the different parish programs are much more effective — they do things that the smaller parishes weren’t able to realistically accomplish,” she said.

“Bigger is better in this case.”

McMahon also appreciated the in­crease of young families in her parish after the merger.

Former St. Gregory parishioner, Kath­leen Hartmann, 70, said Lumen Christi is better equipped for outreach and for the parishioners’ spiritual growth.

“For everything that was hard, it seemed like there was a blessing. There was something we were going to be able to do or be in the new space that we couldn’t before,” she said.

Facing a merger?

Lumen Christi parishioners suggest the following:

» Pray
“Some of those feelings [of loss] are natural any time we experience a loss or a change, but we need to work through those and get to acceptance, and realize that by praying we can probably do that a lot faster than standing up and saying ‘I won’t, I won’t, I won’t.’ ”
— Marcia Kremer

» Get involved
“By investing yourself, it becomes less painful, or at least you have something new to latch on earlier, instead of waiting for an outcome”
— Anne Maley

» Stay positive
“There’s always something to be gained in the midst of a loss.”
— Kathleen Hartmann

Mass in a theater? A look back

Ruth Kremer, 87, learned decades ago that being part of a parish is about more than attending Mass in a particular building. She was a member of St. Leo shortly after it was founded in 1945 at a time when members were building a new church, which was not dedicated until 1947.

In lieu of a worship space, the pastor, Father Bernard Murray, baptized Kremer’s son in his garage and celebrated Sunday Mass at the Highland Theater, which was bigger than the Cleveland Avenue storefront where the priest offered daily Masses and heard confessions. Kremer remembers attending Christmas Mass at the theater.

St. Gregory was founded a few years later, in 1951, just one mile?from St. Leo. Archbishop John Murray, who led the archdiocese at the time, believed in small parishes, so many were founded near each other, Kremer said.

Kremer had been a member at St. Gregory for five decades when the decision was made for it to merge with nearby St. Leo and St. Therese. Although the transition was difficult for some people, Kremer said she was happy to go along with it because she loved her parish. Today, she calls Lumen Christi “a real gem.”

At the time St. Gregory closed, Kremer was an active volunteer in the parish. Today, she continues to make brownies for parishioners’ funerals. Last year, the parish had 43 funerals, and she made dessert for each one, she said.

Kremer never felt she was leaving a parish, she said. “I was taking them with me,” she said, of fellow parishioners at St. Gregory.

“[Lumen Christi] has been a great boon to the whole community down here; the place hasn’t cooled down since they opened it up,” she added.

Every once in a while, Kremer feels a slight twinge of nostalgia for St. Gregory, but she’s glad the building is being used as a charter school. As for Lumen Christi, she’s pleased to have good parishioners, a “great pastor” in Father Paul Feela and a “gorgeous building.”

The merger didn’t change her vision of a parish, she said, because “people are the parish.” Today, she can name almost every person attending the Saturday 4:30 p.m. Mass, she said.

“I feel that it was a good move. . . . I really felt as though the Spirit went right down to Lumen Christi,” she said.

Category: Archdiocese Planning Process