Pastors across the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis disclosed details of a massive restructuring during evening Masses on Saturday — sharing some tough news with their families of faith.
At three east metro churches slated to close and merge with other parishes in the coming years, the news was expected and even offered hope for the future.
"Given the demographic changes, we have to each share everything in order to be a vibrant community," said Jeff Marcolina as he left Mass at St. Francis de Sales in St. Paul's West End. The church was to merge with nearby St. James under the plan. "I think it's going to be good for us."
In the strategic plan, 21 churches in the 12-county archdiocese would eventually close and merge with other parishes; 33 parishes would join together in pastor-sharing clusters; and 25 would collaborate to share programming and staffing resources.
A combination of stretched finances, parish populations moving out of the urban core and a predicted shortage of priests spurred the 20-month planning process.
At a Saturday afternoon news conference in the archdiocese chancery on St. Paul's Cathedral Hill, one of the architects of the plan told reporters that the touchstones of religious life — baptisms, weddings, funerals — can be tied up in the physical structure of a church.
But, added the Rev. Peter Laird, who co-chaired the strategic planning committee: "The church is not ultimately about buildings. It's about relationships."
ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST, HUGO
As a kid growing up in North Minneapolis, Jon Shelley saw seven Catholic schools consolidated into one building in the early 1980s. Shelley, now a priest, reminded his Hugo-based parish of that on Saturday as he broke the news that their 105-year-old church would be merging with a neighboring parish a few miles down the road in Centerville.
He said mergers are nothing new and that Catholics are called by their faith to share their resources,
"We're being asked today to think about that differently, to think about that beyond facility, beyond boundary," he said, standing before packed pews at the Church of St. John the Baptist in Hugo. "Sacrifice is what we are being asked to consider today. And sacrifice hurts. If it didn't, it wouldn't be sacrifice, would it?"
In an interview later, Shelley said details of the merger are still up in the air. It's possible the two institutions will keep separate quarters under the leadership of one pastor. He echoed the sentiments of many of his parishioners when he said that the merger with the Church of St. Genevieve was no surprise.
"The conversation between us and our partner parish has been going on,
"It's no surprise, but it hurts," said Audrey Herzog, who has been attending St. John the Baptist for 10 years. "I like things just the way they are."
ST. FRANCIS DE SALES
Late-afternoon light streamed through the stained-glass windows of this West Seventh church, founded in 1883 as a worship site for German immigrants.
The teal, scarlet and aquamarine light fell on some of the 100 worshippers in the soaring sanctuary, where long stretches of pews went empty.
The Rev. Juan Miguel Betancourt oversaw the service as parishioners sang Hymn 474, "Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty," recited Psalm 121 — "Our help comes from the Lord" — and lined up for Communion.
At the end of the service, the priest shared the news with the gathered: St. Francis would eventually merge with St. James, three blocks away.
"It's going to be fine," he reassured them. "It's going to be fine."
No one seemed surprised by the news.
The two parishes have shared their pastor for several years, their schools merged a couple years ago, and St. James parishioners attend St. Francis for summertime Masses because St. James doesn't have air conditioning. Funerals held in St. Francis even have to move to St. James for fellowship — St. Francis doesn't have it's own fellowship hall.
Duane Bizek, 74, joined St. Francis after moving to the Twin Cities from northwestern Minnesota. He said he understood the need to merge.
"You don't see a lot of kids around here anymore," he said.
For Nancy Tomasino, 89, who joined St. James after moving to the West Seventh neighborhood from Italy 80 years ago, change seems necessary to keep her parish open.
"Nothing stands still," the sprightly worshipper said. "You can't go it alone. Otherwise you fall apart."
For the foreseeable future, the parishes — to be joined under the name St. Francis de Sales of St. Paul — will maintain two worship sites.
ST. VINCENT DE PAUL
Twenty people and a priest gathered at the Church of St. Vincent de Paul on Saturday to observe the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time — a quiet time in the Christian calendar.
But it was no ordinary Mass.
The parishioners, sprinkled across just 12 pews in the large sanctuary, buzzed about the not-so-unexpected news that their Frogtown parish would officially merge with the Cathedral of St. Paul on Jan. 1, 2012.
"I've gone here all my life, 74 years," said Midge Huberty. "But we've been preparing for this for a long time."
Their priest, the Rev. Joseph Johnson, has served as pastor at both parishes for the last four years. For the last few years, the cathedral's parishioners have also helped out the small church with an annual collection.
"Father Johnson has said we're the 'Little Cathedral of the North,' and now we're going to join the big cathedral," said Jackie Heintz as she walked out of Mass. "I am not surprised, but I am sad."
There was a quiet melancholy present Saturday amid the prayer candles, stained glass, crucifixes and St. Paul history that date back to 1888. This has always been a church of the working class, begun as a mission chapel near Blair Avenue and Virginia Street that served a predominantly Irish congregation. In more recent years, the urban church at 651 Virginia St. survived because it became a parish for Hmong Catholics.
During Saturday evening's Mass — which no Hmong attended — Johnson informed the parishioners that the buildings and land of St. Vincent (which includes a rectory) would not close but rather become the "St. Vincent de Paul campus" of the Cathedral of St. Paul parish. The current Mass schedule remains the same for now, including the popular Hmong service and brunch on Sundays.
The priest advised his flock that they should see the merger as a healthy change.
"The roses in the prayer garden continue to bloom in this beautiful October weather. If you see me out with the pruning sheers, you might say, 'Look, Father is attacking those rose bushes!' " he said. "Or you could say, 'Look, Father is pruning the rose bushes so they will blossom and be more beautiful.
"This is not a negative, but a positive, forward-looking decision so the church may flourish more than ever."