Churches across the region are drawing upon God’s grace as they transition into blended faith communities.
In the 12 months since the Hartford Archdiocese’s pastoral planning went into full effect, parishes have been breathing new life through mergers with others. Ministries are thriving and church attendance has risen. Clergy are busier than ever, moving between multiple facilities and serving many more families. For a religious institution experiencing a decline in active membership and vocation to the priesthood over the last several decades, that is nothing short of a godsend.
“The whole point was to make these parishes more vibrant for future generations,” archdiocesan Director of Communications Maria Zone said. “People really are embracing the fact that they have new neighbors coming to share in the Masses and they’re rejuvenated by the attendance.”
In the last 50 years, the number of practicing priests dropped more than 65 percent. Meanwhile, the number of churches went up 13 percent. Father James Shanley, executive director of the Secretariat for Communications and Public Relations, has guided clergy through a reallocation process he sees as vital to the Roman Catholic community’s future.
“Some parishes are stronger financially and some are still discerning whether or not to keep two campuses,” Father Shanley reported. “None are unsuccessful. Others are successful in varying degrees of cooperation through building, financial and staffing issues. It really depends on the overall opinion of the people, in how interested they are in making the change. A new name doesn’t make a new parish.”
In Bristol, St. Ann and St. Anthony churches are adjusting to their transformation as St. Francis de Sales Parish. This brought together two congregations, one largely French, one Italian.
“Most of the people had known each other because they grew up in the same neighborhoods, worked in the same factories or shopped in the same places,” Father Alphonso Fontana, pastor, said. “What divided them before was ethnicity, but now they’re united by their faith in Jesus.”
The churches are a block away in the city’s west end. Parishioners are generally choosing where to attend Mass based on schedule rather than tradition.
“God is in all the churches,” former St. Ann member Stan Dubey said.
“The time judges where we go,” his wife Emily added. “The priest is the same, so what’s the difference?”
Joe and MaryAnn Czepiel were married in St. Anthony 50 years ago and are concerned about the building’s future.
“We don’t know if it’s going to leave us or stay,” MaryAnn said. “It’s a big transition to adjust to.”
Fontana is pleased to see parishioners worshiping together and making new friends.
“It’s God’s grace uniting people,” he said. “You can see the work of the Lord in this whole thing.”
All four weekend Masses are nearly full these days and the merger has only strengthened the churches’ ministries.
“People from St. Ann’s go to St. Anthony’s pasta supper and people from St. Anthony’s go to St. Ann’s bingo,” Fontana said. “Our financial situation is solid.”
Like priests across the region, he is now performing double or triple the number of funerals, weddings, first Communions, confirmations and baptisms.
“It’s a little bit of a challenge to dispense more sacraments, but I’m enjoying it and doing just fine.”
In the merger of St. Ann and St. Mary churches in New Britain, Father Israel Rivera, pastor of the newly named St. Joachim Parish, sees more harmony with each new day.
“Beautiful things are happening,” he said. “The beginning was difficult, but people are grateful now.”
The two churches combined pastoral councils and finances on June 29, 2017. Not only did this bring more than 1,600 Catholic families together, it marked yet another union of cultures. St. Mary was largely Hispanic and St. Ann, Italian or otherwise English-speaking. Now parishioners celebrate Mass in St. Mary Church on Sundays, with staggered English and Spanish services. A single Saturday evening Mass is celebrated at St. Ann Church a few blocks away.
“We feel that this is our home, too,” Mike Castro said, leaving St. Mary recently.
Castro joined St. Ann when he moved from Italy in 1971. He presided over the parish council for many years and is now vice president of St. Joachim’s council.
“It was tough in the beginning because you don’t want to lose what you had, but instead of being separate churches, we felt the community and the parishioners were more important.”
Egidio and Sofia Giannone of Farmington were first introduced to St. Mary in June. Now they go to both churches.
“I love it,” Sofia said. “St. Ann’s is our home, but Father Israel makes St. Mary feel like our home, too.”
The same can be said for another blended family across the city — St. Jerome and St. Maurice.
“People are going back and forth between the two parishes; all the walls are being broken down between them,” Father Shanley said of the new St. Katharine Drexel.
Father Michael Casey, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish on Stanley Street in New Britain, has an entirely different undertaking in the works. In February, he was appointed chaplain of Central Connecticut State University and he is establishing a new campus ministry. At the same time, he serves as the archdiocese’s vocation director.
“The new mission is to reach out to all 11,000 students of the university to be of assistance to them,” Father Casey explained. “It’s very exciting.”
He expects to help young adults with discernment, or understanding God’s will for themselves. For some, that could mean pursuing ordination to the priesthood.
“God is the only one who can call you to service,” Father Casey said. “I let him and his love unveil his plan for their lives.”
The archdiocese has no more mergers planned and is counting on congregations and deaneries to take it from here.
“We want parish councils to feel empowered and make decisions for themselves,” Zone said. “They know best what’s going on in their communities to make decisions that sustain them in the future.”
Only time will tell if maintenance and upkeep of multiple facilities will be a strain for parishes.
“Nobody from the archdiocese will tell them to close their buildings,” Father Shanley said. “Those decisions will only be made on the local level.”
Church staff are giving a facelift to St. Ann in New Britain, which is smaller than St. Mary and sees far less attendance at its single remaining Mass.
“We are working to keep it open as long as we can,” Father Rivera said. “We are painting the building, trying to keep spirits up and supporting ministries they had in the past. Hopefully, by the glory of God, it will stay open for a long time.”
This article first appeared in the Bristol Press. It is reprinted with permission.