In the 1980s, the first members of St. Elizabeth Seton Church built a parish, a mission of the larger St. James Church in town, without a handbook.
Now, more than three decades after St. Elizabeth Seton Parish’s birth, the church has merged back with St. James, part of a consolidation of parishes, the largest in the history of the Archdiocese of Hartford.
St. Elizabeth Seton again is faced with the challengeof building without a step-by-step guide. But this time, the goal is different: a rebirth as a cohesive faith community joined with St. James under a new name: St. Josephine Bakhita Parish.
The formation of St. Josephine Bakhita Parish comes with plenty of challenges: merging two churches or parishes with dramatically different cultures and worship styles; getting beyond the politics and an “Us and Them” mentality; and combining ministries so St. Josephine Bakhita acts as one parish. A rebirth as a unified parish also will depend on growing enrollment in times when church attendance is falling and an increasing number of millennials describe themselves as “spiritual” but “not religious.”
Father George M. Couturier, pastor of St. Josephine Bakhita, said the key to the merger ultimately will rest with the two communities’ understanding and valuing their backgrounds. As simple as it sounds, members of each church must take the time to get to know each other, essential to building bridges between the two communities, he said.
“It’s appreciating each other’s differences and appreciating what you might be able to learn from each other so that it opens up a new vista for your growth spiritually,” Father Couturier said. “So, I’m optimistic, but getting there might be tough. It might be bumpy.”
St. Elizabeth Seton and St. James are not alone in dealing with change. Last year, the archdiocese announced a restructuring plan that reduced the number of parishes to 127 from 212, with 144 parishes involved in mergers, including St. Elizabeth Seton and St. James. Twenty-six church buildings closed and several are now up for sale.
The idea behind the consolidation is to spark a new resurgence in Catholicism, fostering more engagement among the faithful and renewing a sense of mission.
St. Josephine Bakhita is pushing ahead with its combination. And while many of the changes so far are internal the biggest being which building gets which weekend Masses the merger is being observed closely by the wider faith community in Rocky Hill, and it is lending support and inspiration.
In a recent homily, Father Couturier shared that the pastor of the local Congregational church, Craig Cowing, painted an icon of St. Josephine Bakhita as a gift to the merging churches as a sign of unity and prayer.“
He said, ‘George, I’m praying for your two communities in Rocky Hill that if you can’t do it, none of us can. If we can’t find unity, we’re all in trouble as Christians.’”
The icon, painted over several months, is a true source of encouragement, Father Couturier said.
“It’s just an unbelievable tribute of his commitment from his community for us in our progress getting to the deeper part of our lives, the truth, the way of Christ that unites us,” Father Couturier said.
Rooted in new concept
St. Elizabeth Seton was established as a mission in anticipation of a growing local Catholic population and with the idea of trying something new.
The new church largely designed and built by the labor of its members was assigned non-traditional leadership by Archbishop John F. Whealon. St. Elizabeth Seton was led by a collaborative team of: a priest, Father Robert Burbank; a deacon, Richard L. Santello; and a lay minister, Gail Thibaudeau Bellucci, who now is the archdiocese’s assistant director of pastoral services. The worship space on Brook Street also looked different from St. James: natural wood, clear glass behind the sanctuary and chairs with no kneelers.
“There was no template for starting a new parish,” Bellucci recalled. “And if there was a handbook for building a parish plant, we didn’t have that, either. We relied on the archdiocese, the pastoral experience of Father Burbank, Deacon Santello, my own exuberance and, most importantly, on prayer.”
Bellucci added: “In the midst of all the visioning and decision-making, regular prayer as a team and with our community was our foundation.”
St. Josephine Bakhita is now in the midst of a similar, though more structured, strategic planning process for developing a vision for the new community. Already, specific goals and timetables are being established, and how the process unfolds is being watched by the archdiocese as a possible model for other church mergers.
From its earliest days, members of St. Elizabeth Seton were encouraged to greet others at Mass, even worshippers they didn’t know an attribute that helped shape the church’s culture.
And although the team approach morphed into a more traditional structure with a priest at the helm, some say it was the welcoming environment that was critical in drawing members from dozens of zip codes in the greater Hartford area.
Different parish cultures
Culture is tricky to define because it often exists in a gray area.
During strategic planning sessions last fall, parishioners at both St. Elizabeth Seton and St. James said their communities were welcoming. They also said they considered their respective parishes to be focused on prayer and social outreach.
“Certainly, I think there are more folks at St. James who have a more traditional and conservative approach to Catholicism and how they worship than how they are at St. Elizabeth Seton,” Michael Camilleri, a member of the merger Steering Committee, said. “I think you see it in different ways, in some of the small ways.”
Camilleri pointed to the arrival for Sunday Mass at St. Elizabeth Seton, where people tend to socialize and enjoy each other’s company. There aren’t even at the 7:30 a.m. Mass many people sitting, praying the rosary or quietly in prayer.
“At St. James, it’s a very different story,” Camilleri, a parishioner at St. Elizabeth Seton since its inception, said. “You see a lot more of that happening, and you can see how that’s an adjustment for folks going between communities.”
Father Couturier said the cultures of the two churches are, to some extent, influenced by their architectural styles.
“The intimacy level, being able to be subtle with music at St. Elizabeth Seton, where at St. James everything has to be bigger because it’s a huge building, a very different flavor. It lends itself to high church.”
Change, at least initially, has left many parishioners wrestling with what they see as a loss of identity.
“But they really are not,” Kathy Alexander, a member at St. James for nearly three decades, said. “They’re strengthening it. And I think that the obstacle is showing people. It’s not going to happen overnight.”
Alexander, who for years has headed the scheduling of extraordinary ministers of holy Communion at St. James, said combining liturgical ministries at St. Elizabeth Seton and St. James could make for a big step forward, helping parishioners to become comfortable in both buildings.
“We’re doing a little bit with the music now,” Alexander said. “I think that’s a step we can all take and not just stay siloed in each location.”
Alexander added: “I asked my husband what he thought and he still sees people saying ‘Us and Them,’ and that’s what we have to work on. It’s not us against each other. We are St. Josephine Bakhita.
”Father Couturier also points to a successful combined parish picnic last fall, with established committees at St. Elizabeth Seton and St. James learning to work with each other.
Faith formation has taken the first step in combining, merging confirmation preparation; and the two music directors got together early to plan a combined Easter Vigil celebration.
Father Couturier said he expects the initial transition to take three years. Even then, transformation will continue, as it has in the larger Roman Catholic Church for thousands of years.
The success of merging will determine if both the St. Elizabeth Seton and St. James buildings ultimately remain open. The archdiocese is clear that it expects more consolidation in the future.
“If we can make this merger work, and if we can have our parishes both grow, then yes, I think that becomes a very realistic answer,” Camilleri said. “But if we don’t grow, if we stay stagnant or if we shrink because people aren’t happy, then it’s almost inevitable that one of these buildings has to close.”
Camilleri said the destiny of the combined parish is within the community’s control.
“If we can make this the same way that when the mission of St. James was able to grow this incredible community from nothing and a really prosperous, booming church with people coming from all over the state to come to this community if we can do that with this merged parish, we won’t be talking about, OK, we can just barely fill two Masses at each church. We’re going to say, OK, we’ve got to figure out how to have more Masses because we’re filling it to the brim.”