Sunday, April 29, 2007

"Non-Traditional" Holy Redeemer in Maplewood Fights Merger

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At Holy Redeemer, parishioners can recite the message they received from a bishop of the archdiocese last October almost word for word. They were gaining a new pastor from a neighboring parish, but their Maplewood church would remain "autonomous," as it has been for the past century.

"In God's house, they lied to our face," said Mary Donnelly, a Eucharistic minister and church trustee.

On Saturday, more than 150 parishioners crowded into their church hall to demand answers from a representative of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and other Catholic leaders. By summer or fall 2008, Holy Redeemer is poised to merge with a more conservative church about six times its size - the Church of St. Peter, in North St. Paul.

Archdiocese officials said the move would allow for more outreach to the poor and mission work by combining resources. And, unifying the two churches under one priest would be a better use of clergy.

But the merger, say some parishioners, seems political. Their finances are strong. Their membership, at 270 families, is growing. Unlike other churches that have closed or merged because of dwindling attendance, Holy Redeemer draws visitors from 27 ZIP codes.

In fact, so many newcomers began showing up from nearby senior housing, the parish expanded its parking lot and hired a senior bus for special Saturday services.

But the church's willingness to break with tradition has stood out.

In the 1970s, Holy Redeemer became one of the first churches in the archdiocese to allow members to accept Holy Communion by hand. Now a common practice, it drew murmurs at the time from Catholics across the metro area.

"We don't have pews. We have chairs," said Mary Overson, a former member of the parish council. "We come into church, we have coffee. If you want to bring your coffee to your seat, you do it. We're very personal. We don't get up and leave after Communion. With Holy Redeemer, it's more of a church of choice. You want to be there. You want to be meeting about the spaghetti dinner."

The merger had long been rumored but was finally confirmed this month in a letter from Archbishop Harry Flynn. The letter mentions "combining the resources, ministries and talents of two communities" to increase "ministerial capacity."

Parishioners said they were told in October by a visiting bishop that Flynn, who is stepping down within a year, hopes to install a resident priest in every parish as his legacy.

But the shift to the more traditional tone and practices at St. Peter - which funds its own elementary school - will be difficult.

"We do a lot of praying over there for money, and I have a real problem with that," said Terry Meister, who has worshipped with both congregations. "I myself am raising three children ... and I hear you've got to give, you've got to give, you've got to give."

The Rev. Dan F. Griffith, who has presided at St. Peter for more than a year and Holy Redeemer since October, downplayed the emphasis on fundraising. He said St. Peter's $11 million capital campaign will allow the combined parish to build a large building capable of fitting both congregations.

"We have been praying for a new church, and we believe prayer is effective," the 36-year-old priest said.

Overson and others said the merger felt like a land grab. The fate of Holy Redeemer's Maplewood building is up in the air, and decisions about the church's physical assets rest with a five-member board of trustees. The board includes two parishioners, the pastor and two representatives of the archdiocese.

On Saturday, the Rev. Kevin McDonough - one of the archdiocese members on the board - told parishioners that a final decision about the building had not been made. He closed his comments by noting that trustee terms for parishioners, appointed by the pastor, last only two years.

The observation drew uncomfortable murmurs from the audience. Some members later said it sounded like a veiled threat.

"If the archdiocese wants to make a decision, we are powerless, because two votes from the archdiocese and the pastor are the majority votes," said Evelyn Pallas, a member of Holy Redeemer's finance committee.

In 35 years, Pallas has lived in Mahtomedi, Shoreview and Roseville but always made the Sunday trek to Maplewood for services. She worries that many in the congregation - half of whom live outside Maplewood - will drop out after the merger.

She said parishioners feel they have been broadsided by a top-down mandate from the archdiocese over which they had no input, warning or control.

"I think they put the cart before the horse," Pallas said. "In other parishes, they had the dialogue first."

Other worries are festering. Flynn's chosen successor, Bishop John Nienstedt, is seen by some Catholics as being stringently conservative.

"We have had a priest here on Saturday and Sunday, and the rest of the time, we have a parish administrator," Overson said. "Maybe the archdiocese has a problem with that. I don't know."

What do you suppose they mean by "Non-Traditional?"


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