Friday, April 27, 2007

Frustrated and sad, worshippers protest merger of N St Paul & Maplewood Parishes

In the immortal words of St Paul-Minneapolis' new Coadjutor Archbishop, John Nienstedt, "If you want more priests, Catholics, have more children!"

Through prayer, the Twin Cities archbishop has decided to merge a small Catholic church in Maplewood with a larger church in North St. Paul. Through frustration and desperation, members of the smaller church have started a counter-prayer in protest.

"The general feeling is, people are devastated," said Joan Gecik, parish administrator for Holy Redeemer in Maplewood. "We thought we had the perfect parish."

Holy Redeemer, home to 270 member families, could merge with St. Peter Church, with more than 1,800 families, as soon as August 2008. Both congregations would move together into a new church to be built on the present St. Peter grounds at 2590 N. Margaret St. in North St. Paul.

Rumored for months, the merger was confirmed to members of both churches in an April 18 letter from Harry Flynn, archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, in which he said he reached this decision through "prayer and careful thought." Members of both churches have their first chance to question church officials about the merger in an informational meeting Saturday at Holy Redeemer.

Holy Redeemer members say they're motivated to preserve their culture and community.

"We welcome anybody to our church, but we're all very active members, and we like being small," said Mary Overton, a member since 1970. "They've been hinting at this (merger) for quite some time - they've been going about this kind of sneaky. It's very upsetting for all of us."

Caught in the middle is the Rev. Dan Griffith, pastor for both churches. [Father Griffith is scheduled as the featured speaker at St Augustine's next Argument of the Month Club session on May 8. Get your reseervations in early!] He went to Boston this week to meet with church officials who have led other congregations through mergers. He echoes sentiments Flynn laid out in his letter, acknowledging that the loss of church culture among Holy Redeemer members is "a legitimate concern."

Griffith stresses that this is a merger, not a closure, and that it is part of a national movement inside and outside the Catholic Church. Local leaders are taking steps to ensure Holy Redeemer members feel the new, blended church is theirs as much as it belongs to members of St. Peter. Those steps include forming a strategic planning committee with members of both churches, dissolving each church's financial and pastoral councils to create new bodies from the merged congregations and, in all likelihood, renaming the church. One potential name, Griffith said, is St. Peter of the Redeemer.

"It might not be as happy as two folks coming together in marriage, but we're going to try, very deliberately and thoughtfully, to bring the cultures of each into one," Griffith said. "From my standpoint, the people in the pews are our No. 1 constituency. I understand there's a lot of pain, and there's certainly a sense of loss and sacrifice, but we also let the Holy Spirit guide us and approach this as Christians and people of faith."

Some at Holy Redeemer suspect a less holy rationale for the merger - land value. Griffith deflected a question about whether the archdiocese wants to sell the land in Maplewood. Church leaders have considered a merger such as this, he said, for more than decade.

"It's about combining ministries, resources and talents to better serve parishioners," he said, noting that Holy Redeemer hasn't had a full-time pastor of its own for three years.

Holy Redeemer formed at the turn of the 20th century as an Italian national church in downtown St. Paul and moved to Maplewood in 1971. The Italian heritage has long been relegated to history, but it is still a destination church - a "church of choice," Overton said - rather than one based on geography. While half its members live in Maplewood, Holy Redeemer draws members from 27 ZIP codes. While following Roman Catholic doctrine, members tend to lean more away from tradition than do their counterparts at St. Peter, Griffith said.

[27 ZIP Codes? There are two types of Catholics who will drive a long way to get to Mass. One type is those seeking a Tridentine Mass or other conservative liturgy. "Lean away from tradition"? Is that another way to say "Peace and Justice Progressive?" That's the other type! ]

Holy Redeemer members aren't expecting to change the minds of church leaders at the Saturday meeting, but they also don't expect to sit as a silent audience.

"I hope they allow a free-for-all," Overson said. "Because what do we have to lose now?"

An informational meeting about the merger plan will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, 2555 Hazelwood St., Maplewood. PioneerPress

Editorial comment that may or may not be relevant here: Maplewood (look at the map), whose only reason for existence is that they didn't want to be part of St Paul, is also the city in the Twin Cities area whose City Council deals with more controversy than any other in Minnesota. By far.

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