Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Rural Catholics used to traveling great distances to church

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Note: In light of the Strategic Planning Process for Parishes and Schools currently underway in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, The Catholic Spirit has been running a series of stories on diocesan reconfiguration trends across the United States to help local Catholics better understand how planning issues are being addressed in other dioceses. This is the last story of the series.

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Parishioner Myrtle Herian gestures during an interview with a Catholic News Service reporter at St. Olaf Parish in Mabel, Minn., in late April. At left are parishioners Sue Stortz and Connie Herian. - CNS photo / Bob Roller
In small-town and rural America, residents are accustomed to going great distances to get the things they need: cars, farm implements, groceries, household goods — even church services.

A bishop of a rural diocese might point out that Catholic churches are frequently located about eight miles from one another because eight miles was the distance a team of horses could travel in one direction and back again on the same day and not be lost to exhaustion.

The sparse populations meant that parishes started small, and for the most part they have remained small.

Clustering trend

In Mabel, Minn., where St. Olaf Church is located, parishioner Myrtle Herian remembers a time when “the bishop said you need 15 families to start a parish.”

That time has long passed, as a decline in the number of priests has made single-parish ministry in rural areas next to impossible.

Mabel, in the Diocese of Winona, is part of a three-parish cluster.

It currently has about 110 households. The town’s population has dipped from 888 residents to 763.

Last year, the pastor of St. Olaf and its two cluster parishes, Msgr. Don Schmitz, got the parishioners at all three parishes to agree to conduct all religious education at just one of the church sites, though it wasn’t St. Olaf.

In an era of scarce resources for ministry, you have to combine services and ministries, he told Catholic News Service.

The members of St. Olaf take pride in having the largest turnout, percentagewise, in diocesan lay ministry formation. Three parishioners took the courses a year ago, and another three took the courses over the past year.

The numbers may not be big, but the church facility is expanding. A recent addition gave the church a social hall and a cry room. Gone, though, to make way for the addition was the “pie room,” where pies made in the kitchen in back of the church would cool.

“Everybody knows each other because that’s not that many people to know,” said Deacon Adam McMillan, a seminarian who was concluding a term of pastoral service to the St. Olaf cluster. “It’s not 4,000 families but 60 families.”

“Jim and I wouldn’t miss coming to church on Sunday,” said Connie Herian, Myrtle’s daughter-in-law. “And if we did, people would ask what had happened to us.”

Becoming self-sufficient

In Fayette, Iowa, the members of St. Francis of Assisi Parish are preparing in their own way for continued change.

The parish had topped out in terms of membership at just shy of 200 households. Now there are about 125 households and St. Francis of Assisi has been twinned with another parish and a mission church has been closed.

The new pastor, Father Jim Brokman, does his best to spend two days a week at St. Francis, since that parish pays 40 percent of his salary. He and parishioners cleaned out a small room just off the parish hall behind the worship space to turn into an office.

St. Francis’ religious education program is in no immediate danger of merging with that of another parish. Nearly all the rooms in the former rectory are filled with desks and catechetical materials to form the faith of children of all ages as well as adults.

But Father Brokman has a keen interest in making sure the members of St. Francis of Assisi are prepared to be even more self-sufficient than they are.

When the pastor of an adjoining two-parish cluster retires from active ministry, Father Brokman said he has been told that he will assume pastoral responsibilities for those parishes as well. Catholic Spirit


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