Some 50 miles southwest of the See City of St. Paul, a good hour’s drive through picturesque farmland, Catholics are being asked to give up a part of themselves.
Part of their spiritual heritage.
Part of their family tradition.
Their parishes are merging with others.
While that’s a door closing and a reason for grieving, it’s also an opening with opportunities that small parishes don’t always have.
The way Father Kevin Clinton put it, the merging is “an opportunity to create a future — to be sensitive to the past but to look forward.”
Strong, deep connections
Catholics have worshiped since the 1850s and 1860s in five churches in the farming communities just west of the growing town of New Prague (pop. 7,321). But circumstances — population shifts, financial stress, building concerns, clergy personnel issues — combined to require decision-making about which churches would be able to continue.
When the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis delivered its Strategic Plan for Parishes and Schools in October 2010, St. Scholastica in Heidelberg, St. John the Evangelist in Union Hill, St. Thomas in St. Thomas, St. Joseph in Lexington and St. Benedict in rural New Prague were marked to merge with St. Wenceslaus, the much larger parish (1,400 families) in New Prague, where Father Clinton is the pastor.
Deacon Bob Wagner, who lives in New Prague, has a good idea of how difficult the merging is and will be.
“For some of these families, [their connection with their parish] goes back to the 1880s,” Deacon Wagner explained. “That’s an attraction, it’s almost built into the land, and that’s very precious and very fragile and needs to be very carefully attended to.”
Being careful and attentive and flexible and moving slowly — but moving forward nonetheless — is the approach being taken.
Even early on there was a change to the original plan.
St. Thomas in St. Thomas is no longer part of the New Prague-area merger but merging with St. Anne in Le Sueur, at the request of St. Thomas parishioners.
“It made sense,” Father Clinton said. “People at St. Thomas have a much stronger affinity with Le Sueur than with New Prague.”
The archdiocesan merger plan called for the churches at Heidelberg and Union Hill to remain in use, but for those in Lexington and St. Benedict to be closed, while the parishes themselves are intact as part of the merger with St. Wenceslaus.
When the plan was presented, anger and hurt were natural reactions. One question from parishioners was, “How do you secede from the archdiocese?”
Associate pastor Father David Barrett recalled, “People asked, ‘Why us? We’ve always made it before.’”
Deacon Wagner was realistic: “Nobody was for their church being closed.”
Change a long time coming
But groundwork begun five years before has borne fruit. When Father Clinton was first assigned to St. Wenceslaus, Archbishop Harry Flynn asked him to interview pastors and trustees at nearby parishes to begin to develop a pastoral plan for the area. At the time, one of the parishes had only 14 households.
It was that knowledge of the parishes, the area, the people and their strengths, challenges and fears — and knowing the differences between the larger St. Wenceslaus parish and churches in the rural areas nearby — that led to the decision to try to create what’s being referred to as the Western Catholic Community portion of St. Wenceslaus Parish.
The pastoral team is working at motivating people in those smaller parishes to create a united rural faith community that gathers at two sites, the churches in Heidelberg and Union Hill.
“I didn’t need these folks to lose the rural parish identity,” said Father Clinton, who was raised on a farm south of Cleveland, Minn. “I wanted to preserve as much of that identity as I could.”
His family’s parish was the rural parish of Marysburg, so he appreciates what rural parishes have. “People know one another, there’s a lot of generosity,” he said. “You don’t have to build community because it’s already there.”
The downside, however, is that these smaller parishes are also very different, with certain ways of doing things. And they’d had pastors with different managerial styles.
The aim now is to blend these very different parishes into one Catholic community.
It’s not unlike blending a family, noted Deacon Wagner, to whom Father Clinton has assigned the administrative and financial duties of the rural community.
Father Barrett, to whom Father Clinton has assigned the primary spiritual care of the Western Catholic Community, sees progress happening, if slowly.
Finances have played a significant role as the merging of the parishes happens. A huge step toward acceptance of merging was made in the minds of some when a financial analyst did a five-year projection of the cost to run all five parishes and the anticipated income.
“You quickly realized that having five parishes was not sustainable,” Father Clinton said.
A key piece in making the merger work may be the building of an “economic firewall” that separates the financial transactions of St. Wenceslaus with the financial transactions of the parishes in the Western Catholic Community.
That was done, Father Clinton said, to allay people’s concerns that the great economic needs of a 1,400-member parish with a Catholic elementary school would not gobble up the finances of the rural parishes that are being merged. Separate books make the distinction clear.
However, while there is that separation, the merging of St. Scholastica, St. Joseph, St. Benedict and St. John the Evangelist with the big church and campus that dominates Main Street in New Prague offers benefits like shared retreats for the confirmation candidates of all the parishes, religious education programs open to all, more pastoral ministries such as BeFrienders to volunteer for and to use, social justice work to become involved in, and programs to enhance prayer life and worship.
An example coming up Monday, Nov. 14, is the evening of enrichment for lectors, lay presiders, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion to senior residences and the homebound and those who present the Liturgy of the Word for Children. Parishioners from St. Wenceslaus and the Western Catholic Community are all invited.
And the pluses aren’t one-sided. This year the eighth-grade retreat for St. Wenceslaus pupils had the benefit of being held off-campus to move the day out of the ordinary school regimen — six miles away at St. Scholastica in Heidelberg.
That said, the merging of these five parishes — completed on paper — is much a work in progress.
Some people are frankly still parish shopping. Others have found spiritual homes in nearby parishes, St. John the Baptist in Jordan for one, the closest parish to the north.
“The people in these merging parishes tend to be real practical,” Father Clinton said. “The majority could see the handwriting on the wall. Folks have had to give up a lot. They did their grieving.”
A challenge for some was not having Mass at their church at the time they’ve always gone to Mass. Now if people want to go to Mass at the time they always have they may have to drive four miles farther — and celebrate Mass with people with whom they may not yet have a relationship.
But, even there, there’s been flexibility.
The Union Hill parish used to have an 8:15 Mass on Saturday evenings. It was originally eliminated.
Folks missed having that late-Saturday Mass at St. John the Evangelist, so Deacon Wagner worked with parishioners to write to appeal that decision to the archdiocese, and Father Clinton made the request to Archbishop John Nienstedt.
The archbishop approved re-starting the late-Saturday Mass alternating, half the year at Heidelberg and half the year at Union Hill.
“People said, ‘Oh, we can be listened to!’” Deacon Wagner said. “Father Clinton and the archbishop both gained credibility.”
Deacon Wagner said he expects it to take two to three years for “everything to shake out.”
Father Clinton said he’ll know the merger is successful when people see the positives, when they realize the economic firewall is just that, and when the Western Catholic Community is “functioning independently, paying its bill, and the leadership has been around for a couple of years and comfortable with the decision-making process.”
Father Barrett, comfortable in his assignment since he grew up on a farm in Randolph, Minn., said the merger will be complete “when there’s less ‘them and us’ and more ‘we.’”