Sharing resources helps rural tri-parish cluster serve community

| August 11, 2010 | 0 Comments

For three rural parishes south of the Twin Cities, being part of a parish cluster means sharing — sharing a bulletin, sharing fundraising  efforts and sharing a pastor.

But it also means that all three parishes can remain open and viable, which is what the communities want, said Carol Stoffel, a parishioner at St. John the Baptist in Vermil­lion for 33 years.

St. John the Baptist

St. John the Baptist

Last year, St. John formed a cluster with St. Mary in New Trier and St. Mathias in Hampton, which were already paired. After having their own pastor throughout the par­ish’s 128-year history, St. John’s parishioners are learning to think differently about what it means to be part of a parish community.

Members of the archdiocesan Strategic Task Force for Parish and School Planning have indicated that new parish clusters may be formed in the archdiocese when the Strategic Plan for Parishes is announced in October.

As the archdiocese embraces its future, it can learn from parishes that have already faced the challenges and experienced the benefits of clustering, said task force member Jim Lundholm-Eades.

St. Mary

St. Mary

Growing in unity

The tri-parish cluster formed in July 2009 after Archbishop John Nienstedt assigned Father Stan Mader to be pastor of St. Mary, St. Mathias and St. John.

The three parishes are just a handful of miles from each other — St. Mary is four miles east of Hampton, St. John is six miles north of Hampton and seven miles northwest of New Trier. Together, the parishes have about 660 families.

“Growing up in the community, I realized that we probably would one day gather as a faith community as one,” Stoffel said. “I realized there was a shortage of priests in so many parishes.” She pointed to St. Agatha in nearby Coates, which has not had a resident pastor since 1925.

St. Mathias

St. Mathias

Although St. John still feels like home, she feels welcome when she attends St. Mary or St. Mathias, she said. “You feel like you’re part of their parish, too,” she said, and she also enjoys having parishioners from St. Mathias and St. Mary at her parish.

Last year, Stoffel collaborated with parishioners from all three parishes to put on a fundraiser. They hosted the one-woman play “Late Night Catechism” and raised about $8,000, which was divided among the parishes.

“It was so much fun,” Stoffel said.

The tri-parish cluster collaborates with nearby St. Pius V in Cannon Falls and St. Joseph in Miesville, which share a pastor. The same bulletin is printed for all five parishes, and each accepts each other’s donation envelopes in the collection basket.

Need for pastor’s leadership

Clustering is nothing new for St. Mary, which has been sharing a pastor since 1975 when it was paired for a time with St. Joseph in Miesville, said Judy Kimmes, a parishioner at St. Mary.

The priest’s leadership “is everything” to making the par­ish cluster work, said Kimmes, 64.

St. Mary trustee Bernard Os­ter­tag, 73, agrees: “Father Stan was able to make decisions. He’s not afraid to make them.”

In June, newly ordained Father Paul Kubista joined the cluster as an associate priest. Having another priest helps Father Mader better serve the parishes, he said.

Being a pastor of a cluster is a challenge, he said. It means more meetings — each parish has its own parish council. He spends a lot of time driving between parishes, and he isn’t able to do everything each parish would like him to, he said. St. John, for example, was accustomed to having its pastor visit each family of those receiving first Communion, but he wasn’t able to do that last year, he said.

Father Mader looks to lay leaders to help where they can, like in marriage preparation.

He is also looking forward to greater collaboration within the parishes’ faith formation program. Already, St. Mathias and St. Mary share their religious education program, which draws about 120 children — or 90 percent of the parishes’ youth population.

Three weeks before Father Mader became the cluster’s pastor, St. Mary closed its 144-year-old, pre-kindergarten-to-fifth-grade school.

It was hard to let St. Mary’s School go, said Kimmes, who sent her four daughters to the school. The empty playground is a frequent reminder of the loss. Yet, the parish offers $1,000 annual scholarships to students in the parish to help them attend other Catholic schools.

The most noticeable change was the reduction of Mass times to four per weekend among the three parishes, which included the elimination of a Sunday morning Mass at St. Mathias. Father Mader added a Sunday evening Mass there instead.

St. John no longer has a Saturday evening Mass. Stoffel recalls walking up the church’s steps for Sunday Mass the first weekend there was not one on Saturday.

“The church was just filled with people,” she said, a noticeable contrast from the half-empty church she was accustomed to. “I thought, this is what our community is all about.”

Losing Sunday morning Mass in Hampton was difficult for parishioners, said Diane Rother, 59. A parishioner at St. Mathias for 31 years, Rother said parishioners now drive to St. Mary or St. John for Sunday morning Mass, or attend the evening Masses.

The change interrupted tradition for St. Mathias’ families who always went out for brunch or visited grandparents after morning Mass, said Father Mader.

Yet, Father Mader is up front about the need for compromise.

“Either we’re all going to help each other, or we’re not going to make it,” he said he tells his parishioners, meaning parishes need to collaborate to fulfil the mission of the church.

“[A parish needs] to be a complete parish. The days are gone where we just keep a church open so that people can go to Mass there,” he added.

He pointed to the parishes’ old buildings that require attention. “Because they’ve all tried to have schools, there’s been a fair amount of deferred maintenance, so that’s going to be a big bill and will require some tough decisions,” he said.

Familiarity, friendliness key

Whatever the transition, getting to know families from other parishes helps, Kimmes said. Many families at the three parishes already knew each other before the cluster formed, but familiarity can also be achieved through hospitality and openness, she said.

The towns are all in the Hastings public school district, so public school students may also know one another.

Friendly Mass greeters matter, Kimmes added. And so does taking time to become accustomed to a new arrangement.

Her advice to others facing a cluster?

“Be patient,” she said. “Be peacekeepers.”

She added: “I love our parish, and I love the people in it. When I go to church, it’s just like I’m going home. That’s the feeling that I always have.”


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Category: Archdiocese Planning Process