At the request of Father Timothy O’Brien, then-pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in New Hartford and Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Harwinton, Archbishop Leonard P. Blair decreed the merger of the two parishes on Oct. 1, 2016. To share the thoughts of parishioners involved in the process leading up to the merger, the following questions were posed to a few key people from both parishes. Below is a synopsis of their answers:
Q: As part of the archdiocese’s ongoing pastoral planning, your parishes have been involved in a merger. Where are you in the merger process?
A: A merger committee was formed and we are currently in the final stages of the first half of the process. We have received incorporation as a newly merged parish with the name Our Lady of Hope. Mass times have been adjusted; finances and records are being reviewed and will be combined effective Jan. 1, 2017. The second half of the merger, and frankly the hardest, will be to bring the two communities together and to make an honest assessment of the buildings, properties and full resources of the parish, making sure they are aligned with the future needs and abilities of the parish community.
Q: How long ago was the process started?
A: The process started with the official linking of the parishes approximately five years ago. The formal merger was announced in the fall of 2016. We began meeting and planning in earnest toward the end of 2015.
Q: Has this been a collaborative effort, and if so, in what ways?
A: Yes. We have key people from both churches who have played an important role in moving things forward. To create a name for the new parish, the merger committee oversaw a selection and voting process in which most parishioners were involved. After the linking occurred, Father O’Brien began merging some of the ministries and brought together much of the administrative staff, eliminating duplication, improving efficiency and lowering costs, which benefitted both parishes.
Q: What were some of the initial reactions of the parishioners?
A: Reaction was mixed. Some were very fearful that one of the parishes would close. Some worried about losing their individual identity as a church. Others saw it as an exciting opportunity to combine the best of both parishes to make something even better. Because not everyone is aware of the decline of the church membership that we have already experienced, and that is still to come, some have resisted the change. But most of those people are resigned to, or coming around to, understanding what needs to be done for the greater good of our faith community.
Q: How have those reactions evolved?
A: People really like the name Our Lady of Hope and most are very positive, but some still fear a closure in the future. Some people resist going to the other church for Mass. Others are looking forward to the future with our new parish administrator, Father Michael Ruminski.
Q: What have been the greatest impediments to progress?
A: Parishioners resistant to change, fear and uncertainty. And because there is no comprehensive guide to mergers, we have had to take it upon ourselves to create a merger plan while consulting with the Office of Pastoral Planning.
Q: How have these impediments been addressed?
A: Through ongoing communication, repetitive messaging, transparency, empathy and fairness. Being optimistic by promoting a vision of a viable and sustainable future for our faith community.
Q: What would you say are the benefits of merging?
A: Survival. We are two parishes that have seen a decline in participation and financial support while continuing to support two full campuses. We will become a smaller but stronger single parish, better able to serve both communities. We will see greater attendance at Mass, create streamlined operations, retool/repurpose our ministries and provide opportunities for new talent in leadership roles. All these possibilities will help promote longevity and ensure a vibrant parish for this generation and the next.
Q: What, if any, are the liabilities?
A: There is still resistance on the part of some parishioners who want to keep things the way they have always been. We also run the risk of losing parishioners. The good news, however, is that the majority of people are excited for what is to come. There are those who recognize that in spite of the risk of potential disappointing outcomes, such as closures, we can nonetheless have a smaller version of a parish that will be made up of very committed people.
Q: What advice would you pass on to others thinking about or going through a similar process?
A: Start talking about the process early. Give people a chance to share their feelings, good or bad. Have a timeline and a precise plan for everything that will need to be done. People will respect frankness, clarity and honesty. If the merger results in the eventual closing of one of the churches, it is better to share that information as soon as possible rather than telling them later and making them feel like the process was not honest. Ultimately, it’s vital that people accept the facts, make the best of their particular circumstances and work together for the greater good of the community.
For information, visit www.stewardsfortomorrow.org.