Parishioners of two rural Catholic churches who have been told they will be merged with a third "receiving" parish overwhelmingly oppose the plan.
Members of St. Columbkill Church in Belle Creek Township and St. Mary's Church in Bellechester met independently Thursday evening to voice their reaction.
Both groups voted to file appeals with Archbishop John Nienstedt of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.
Members of Holy Trinity Church, which is designated as the receiving church in the archdiocese's new strategic plan, considered an appeal but decided at a meeting Wednesday to remain mute.
They didn't want an appeal to be misinterpreted as meaning they would not welcome the parishioners from St. Columbkill and St. Mary's. In every other way, a spokesman said, they entirely support those church's efforts to change the archbishop's decision.
The three churches already are "clustered" and share a priest, Father Bruce Peterson.
The two congregations designated for merging began collecting signatures Thursday and hope to complete the process at church Sunday so they can deliver their appeals to the archbishop by a Wednesday deadline.
Upwards of 100 people at St. Mary's Church voted unanimously to appeal, spokesman Todd Majerus said.
Parishioners don't understand why the archbishop would even take such a step; the merger ruling surprised them.
"Nobody can figure out what the ultimate goal is," he said, since the parish is stable and debt-free. Majerus acknowledged that the church hasn't seen a lot of growth, but said that could change with the Elk Run development in nearby Pine Island.
Older members of the congregation, which recently celebrated its 150th anniversary, are concerned about the financial implications - Holy Trinity has some debt - and the possible loss of the church name, Majerus said.
"Nobody likes change," he added. "Nobody wants to see this happen."
The three congregations have a good relationship, he stressed. "We're hoping it'll continue forever." But if the merger happens, "We'll all pitch in to make it work."
"We'd just like to remain in our own parish with our own name," said Bob Eppen, spokesman for St. Columbkill Church.
The crowd of about 100 appeared unanimous in its support of the appeal, he said.
"We're worried about losing our identity, and we don't like to be told what we have to do," Eppen explained - especially when it's not clear what the archdiocese would get out of forcing a merger. "The archdiocese gains nothing," he said.
St. Columbkill has no debt, Eppen said, and it's a vibrant parish with young families in church every Sunday and a building that's in excellent shape.
Most of the people chose to live in rural Goodhue, he noted, because it's a small community with its own school - not paired with any other. Older parishioners were baptized and married at St. Columbkill, he said, "and hope someday to be buried there."
To be told they have to merge, "That just doesn't sit right," Eppen said, citing 150 years of making their own decisions as a parish.
"We're clustered now. We'd just like to keep it that way," he said. Eppen stressed that nobody has anything against Holy Trinity. "They're our friends and neighbors."
"We're just a little rural church doing what it should do."
Catholics of Holy Trinity hope the other churches' appeals are successful, according to spokesman Brandon Schafer.
But after what he described as "extensive discussion" about the possible effect of the strategic plan on their church as well as on St. Mary's and St. Columbkill's churches, the Holy Trinity council decided not to file an appeal as a body. Individuals may do so on their own, however, he said.
"There are lots of unknowns," Schafer said. "We have a great concern about what might come to be" if Holy Trinity does become the "receiving" parish.
It's very frustrating to be in their position, he said.
"I was seriously disappointed," he said. The churches were not informed more going forward and not given an opportunity to be a part of the process as it played out in the hands of the task force.
All three are victims of circumstances outside their control, Schafer said, and decisions may not be based on complete information.
The others face the possibility that they may cease to exist as parishes, he said, but they are not alone in facing major change.
If the merger does take place, Schafer said, Holy Trinity does not see itself as a "mother parish that would call the shots." Rather, he sees "three members becoming one. ... Holy Trinity would cease to exist as we know it today," though it might retain its name.
A merger would require full involvement of all three in the development of "one whole new parish," he said.
And it would bring new challenges and new concerns, Schafer acknowledged. "As we join, would all people come with us?" Logistical and social implications could lead some people to make "life changes."
The most important thing right now, Schafer said, is that the people of St. Mary's and St. Columbkill must focus on their appeals.
"I would be ecstatic if the appeals succeed," he said. The prospect of losing your home church is difficult.
"This is very much like a death in the family for some folks."
He's a person who "plans for the worst and hopes for the best," Schafer said. Once the appeals are filed, it could take 30 days to get a decision - and the archbishop's ruling could again be appealed.
He doesn't want to waste that waiting period, but to use that time to begin three-way conversations about the future.
"We can gain from the process if all three come to the table, and be stronger than ever," Schafer said, whatever the archdiocese ultimately decides. Red Wing Republican Eagle