Palm Sunday Mass began at 10 a.m. at St. Michael Church on Clark Street. It ended in mid-afternoon at St. Justin Church on Blue Hills Avenue. As they left St. Michael’s for the last time, hundreds of parishioners from both communities sang and waved palm branches in a bittersweet procession along the streets of Hartford and merged into St. Justin-St. Michael Parish.
Father Emmanuel Ihemedu, pastor of both parishes while they were linked, is now pastor of the merged parish. Holding aloft the Real Presence in a golden monstrance under a canopy carried by Knights of Peter Claver, he said, “I’m emotional, an emotional mix of sadness and joy, but also optimistic. And I’m hopeful that everything is going to work out well because it is not by my might or power; it is only by God’s grace. And we know that his grace is sufficient for us.”
Palm Sunday Mass is already one of the longest in the liturgical calendar, with a 20-minute reading of the Passion from Matthew's Gospel and the blessing and distribution of palm branches. Add hand-clapping music directed by Donna L. Shears; Caribbean dancing; revival-style guest homilist Father Celsus Marcellus Auguiste; and the long walk to Blue Hills Avenue for Benediction, and the historic Mass became a four-hour celebration.
Father Ihemedu was not surprised that the parishioners never seemed to lose energy as the celebration went on. “They keep me going. Sometimes I come to church with low energy, and the moment I walk into church I’m excited. I’m excited because I have them,” he said.
Manuel J. (“Joey”) Arango, a longtime St. Michael parishioner and member of its Pastoral Planning Committee, said before Mass, “I spoke with Father, and I told him I didn’t know if I would be able to come here for this Mass,”
Knowing how hard it would be to leave the familiar church building. But he added, “In the history of the Church, this is to be expected. Our communities shrink, and we go on the way we have to. It’s God that we are looking for, so whatever environment we find him in, then we accept that and hopefully everything will work fine for us.”
This was echoed in Father Auguiste’s rousing homily, when he said parishioners must “turn the page” and look forward to “the day after.”
Father Auguiste is pastor of Our Lady of La Soie Parish in Dominica. “This church building does not define you,” he said. “You define this church building. This church building is a Catholic church because the people are Catholics.”
Angeline Kelly, a St. Justin parishioner since 1978, said during the procession, “It’s wonderful, united, powerful and epic. It’s emotional for some, but I believe that in the end it will be a great venture.”
Augustine James, another St. Justin parishioner, said he built the handicap ramps at both churches. Of the merger, he said, “I guess we don’t have enough people for both churches, so now we all join together and I think it’s a great move.”
Lynnette Colon was visiting from Newington to provide support to the multi-ethnic parish communities. She said, “I think it was a powerful Mass showing unity between two communities that are open to hope, and so I think it’s a wonderful testament of the faith.”
Vernette Townsend, co-chair of the Pastoral Planning Committee at the merged parish, said leaving her St. Michael building where she was baptized was difficult. “The sweet part is that we know each other,” she said. “The bitter part is that we have to close the doors of one of them.”
She added, “There is a sadness in my heart and it does hurt [to leave] this building. ... You develop a love relationship with it. There are memories here. However, the spiritual side of me is extremely joyful, because I do believe we need to get away from maintaining beautiful, beautiful buildings. That is not what our faith is about.”
In deciding which building to keep, the committee took into account the larger capacity of St. Justin’s, its better parking arrangements, a better rectory and potentially useful auxiliary buildings, she said.
Kay Taylor-Brooks, co-chair of the committee and a member of St. Justin Parish, said, “We sympathize with the St. Michael people who are losing their building, to the point where Father even runs a grief support group for them.”
From her point of view as a seasoned churchgoer at St. Justin’s, she said, “I’m looking forward to the future. I’m excited about joining with St. Michael’s, because we know them already. We’re family already anyway, because we’ve been [linked] with them for so long and we’ve done so many things together over the years. ... It’s like a family that’s been living across town and now they’re coming to live with you, so I’m excited about the potential.”
Father Ihemedu said no decisions have been made regarding the future of the now-closed St. Michael building on Clark Street.
“What I’m hoping for is that we will be a thriving church again,” he said. “We will put to use all our resources and invest in evangelization and washing each other’s feet, as our Lord will do this week, and living out the Gospel not by what we say but by what we do. ... As we put our faith into practice, we put the rest into God’s hands. He has never failed us.”
Deacon Ernest Scrivani is the director of the archdiocesan Office of Pastoral Planning. Two days after the procession, he said that the merger is especially noteworthy. “It is a community-directed merger. People prayed together, strategized together and eventually formed a group called the Faithful Ten who took responsibility for leading their communities through the change,” he said. “They took ownership of their future, led the change successfully and are looking forward to an abundant harvest of blessings.”