Thursday, July 16, 2009

Rural parishes south of the Twin Cities share strengths, challenges

Six miles of field-bordered road separate St. John the Baptist in Vermillion from St. Mathias in Hampton, and it’s the same distance to St. Mary in New Trier. The triangular route between the parishes will be one Father Stan Mader learns well as he pastors the three rural parishes 25 miles south of St. Paul.

St. Mary founded St. Mathias as a mission church in 1900, and the two have shared pastors for many years. St. John also was initially served by St. Mary after it was founded in 1882, but in 1891 it was given its own pastor. That changed on July 1, when Father Stan Mader became pastor of all three parishes.

“For a parish that’s always been fortunate to have their own priest . . . this will be a change and a challenge,” said St. John parish trustee Greg Ries. “It’s exciting at the same time. We’re very fortunate to have him.”

Although the three parishes are not formally clustered, their region of the archdiocese is already home to 13 of the 23 parish clusters in the archdiocese.

More changes are on the horizon for the entire archdiocese as task force members of the Strategic Planning Process for Parishes and Schools begin regional meetings with parish leadership.

Held at St. Dominic in Northfield July 7, the first meeting was designed for parishes in archdiocesan deaneries 6, 7 and 8, which include parishes in Dakota, Scott, Le Sueur, Rice and Goodhue counties. The geographical area includes 53 of the 222 parishes in the archdiocese. About 75 priests and parish leaders attended the meeting.

Parish leaders voiced concerns about declining Catholic school enrollment, declining parish membership and stretching priests too thin while serving clustered parishes.

St. John has 275 families, and although it has recently added on to its church and school, it is almost debt free, Ries said. The pre-kindergarten to fifth-grade school has more than 120 students and is growing.

Yet, St. John — like other parishes in the area — is looking for ways to engage teenage parishioners and build a financial reserve, Ries said.

Projections regarding the whole archdiocese’s future show more Catholics but fewer priests, and task force members are asking Catholics for input on how best to manage financial, personnel and structural resources in their regions. The task force will make recommendations to Archbishop John Nienstedt, and he will confirm the final plan.

Statistics show that by 2019, the number of archdiocesan priests eligible to be pastor will decline by 19 — from 182 to 163 priests. At the same time, both the general and Catholic population in the archdiocese is growing, and the Catholic growth is almost exclusively attributed to immigrants, said task force member Jim Lund­holm-Eades.

In the archdiocese as a whole, many parishes have been living beyond their means, he said. For fiscal year 2006, the cash to debt ratio was 0.7, meaning that for every dollar that was spent overall, only 70 cents were actually in the bank.

“The financial condition in the archdiocese . . . existed prior to the economic downturn,” Lundholm-Eades told parish leaders. “The downturn just exacerbated and exposed the existing problem.”

At the same time, the distribution of debt and operating loss among parishes and schools is not evenly spread throughout the archdiocese, he said.

Another issue for parishes throughout the archdiocese is Mass attendance. Of registered Catholics in the archdiocese, only 34 percent are estimated to attend Mass regularly, which aligns with the 36 percent national average estimated by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Catholic education

Religious education enrollment is declining, showing a significant drop-off after confirmation. Roughly 38 percent of children baptized between 1993 and 1999 are not served by any religious education program or Catholic school in the archdiocese, Lundholm-Eades said.

Parish schools are also increasingly difficult to financially support, he added.

“Very few individual parishes can comfortably support a Catholic school on their own,” he said.

Parishes south of the metro have watched Catholic schools close; in May, St. Mary in New Trier held class for the last time after 144 years. Only 17 students were enrolled.

When he was named pastor, Father Mader called former St. Mary principal Pat Ziegenbein to offer condolences.

“I grew up in a place where a school closed; I’ve attended schools that have closed, and I know how difficult that can be. There’s a lot of that identity there,” he said.
Over the last five years, tuition at St. Wenceslaus in New Prague has risen from $1,790 to $3,250 for its pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade school, said parish business administrator Peter Guzulaitis.

The increase made it possible for the parish to better fund other areas of its ministry, including faith formation, he said.

However, enrollment has declined in the kindergarten to eighth grades, Guzulaitis said, which reflects the trends Lundholm-Eades described.

Yet, “the school is very much embedded in the fabric of the community, both in the parish and New Prague as a whole,” Guzulaitis said.
Ries also pointed to St. John’s school as a community unifier.

“That’s the great thing with these schools — people are involved and they’re volunteering and they’re there,” he said. “It’s a sort of a community process of raising these kids.”

Changing a community

St. Wenceslaus has 1,440 families, many of whom have parish roots several generations deep. The town is transitioning from an agrarian community to a Twin Cities bedroom community, although farming remains strong, Guzulaitis said.

Some young families return to New Prague to raise their children, he added.

The parish and town’s tight-knit nature mean that members know who needs help, prayers and support, Guzulaitis said.

“There’s a general sense of care and compassion within the community that is a real strength for us as a parish,” he added.

Father Mader has more weddings on the calendar and hears more confessions in his new parishes than at his previous assignment, which was a larger parish, he said.

“What keeps a parish going isn’t necessarily a school or the number of people, but the liveliness of it,” Father Mader said. “What I see in these parishes right now is a strong devotional life and a sincere faith. . . . In some ways, you see more of a sacramental life.”

Importance of lay leadership

Father Kevin Finnegan, task force member and pastor of Divine Mercy in Faribault, was encouraged by the conversation at the meeting because he heard people share from their hearts, he said.

“I’m impressed with the breadth and depth of lay leadership in our church,” he added.

“There were a lot of people who came from all kinds of parishes, large parishes and small parishes, and their presence simply expressed a willingness to talk to each other, and that’s tremendous.”

It’s important for priests and lay people to talk about how to carry out the work of Christ today, he said.

“I thought [the meeting] was a wonderful opportunity for us to get together and have that kind of conversation . . . on a more local level,” he said. Catholic Spirit

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