Friday, January 22, 2010

Sioux Falls Church Realignment Proposal Spurs Debate

MessagAfter six months of study and discussion, a Catholic study group unanimously approved this week its final recommendations for allocating four priests among 10 area parishes including Yankton. However, the 10 parish representatives expressed strong differences of opinion — and high levels of passion — throughout the process.

In fact, Monday’s meeting in Lesterville produced a 6-4 vote on one proposal. At the end of the evening, all of the members voted for the final package of one preferred proposal and two alternatives.

In the end, Bishop Paul Swain of the Sioux Falls Diocese could reject all recommendations, said Deacon Roger Heidt, the diocesan planning director. Proposals are limited to four priests in the region, with no priest celebrating more than three Masses per weekend. “Once the bishop makes a decision and announces it, he will come to one of these parishes and have a meeting,” Heidt told the group Monday. “He will answer questions and discuss his decision with you.”

The Yankton study group’s major discussion has fallen along three lines. Members have talked about the needs of the two Yankton parishes with a combined 2,100 families; keeping alive rural churches that might be closed; and which parishes should be combined under one priest.

Swain has said changes are needed because of a growing priest shortage in the diocese, covering the eastern half of South Dakota. Swain will receive the Yankton study group’s proposals later this month.

The proposals will also be sent to the diocesan planning committee, priest council and affected pastors. The preferred proposal would have one priest at St. Benedict in Yankton; two priests (a pastor and associate pastor) at Sacred Heart in Yankton; and one priest at Tabor, Scotland and Lesterville. The Sacred Heart associate pastor would also celebrate Mass at Sigel and Mayfield parishes on alternating weekends. He would provide other leadership and sacramental ministry in those parishes.

In addition, Springfield and Tyndall parishes would move to another planning group and unite with Assumption Church of Dante. It is also proposed that the pastor of these parishes be responsible for ministry at the state prison and academy in Springfield. Finally, St. Boniface of Idylwilde (rural Freeman) would be assigned to a group of parishes that includes Parker and Lennox.

A Heavy Burden

During Monday’s meeting, study group members talked about the priests’ possible workload. The two Yankton members — Lori Leader of St. Benedict and Colleen Chase of Sacred Heart — noted an even greater burden on priests if they are required to serve three or even four parishes.

The proposals place the weight on the priests, not the parishioners, Leader said. “I have some concern of the message being sent to Bishop Swain,” she said. “All three plans we send, only one group is sacrificial here, and it’s the priests. I don’t think we as a people are being very sacrificial.” Leader worried the heavy workload would lead to burnout or even worse for the priests. “There is only so much that humans can do and take. You can only stretch them so far,” she said. “Then, they may have guilt because they feel they are not doing what they have taken vows to do, and they can have depression.”

Leader fears that men will leave or not enter the priesthood if they face an overload of responsibilities. “They lead by emotion. I have family and friends who are in the priesthood, and I know their struggles,” she said. “They are not going to be too interested if they are going to be running (many) parishes. They will not be taking vocations.”

Chase believed the study group discussions were moving the wrong way. Under the proposals, the priests were being forced to travel long distances to serve multiple parishes, she said. “With the bishop’s proposal, we are (supposed to be) bringing people to the priests. Here, the priests are being taken to the people,” she said.
“I think we are changing it around (with these proposals). For the priests of Yankton to take it on and travel all over, I don’t know if it’s feasible.”

However, study group member Joe Healy of St. Columba at Mayfield said the rural parishes are taking on a share of the burden. “I thought that Tyndall and Springfield are willing to sacrifice, and Mayfield and Sigel are willing to accept alternating Masses,” he said. “I think we try to do the best we can to help out the priests with the work they do.”

The rural parishioners’ needs must be met, said study group member Lawrence Andersen of Idylwilde. “What would you do, throw these smaller parishes to the wolves? They need to be served,” he said.

Looking At The Numbers

The Yankton deanery shows a wide variety of membership among area parishes. In 2012, the diocesan Web site forecasts there will be 119 households for St. Boniface at Idylwilde, 158 for St. George at Scotland, 228 for St. Wenceslaus at Tabor, 306 for St. Leo at Tyndall, 875 for St. Benedict and 1,234 for Sacred Heart. The Web site does not list 2012 estimates for four other parishes, which would no longer have regular liturgies under a current plan. However, the diocese currently lists 37 families for St. Agnes at Sigel, 53 for St. Vincent at Springfield and 44 for St. Columba at Mayfield. Another parish, St. John the Baptist at Lesterville, did not have figures listed for it.

The small churches offer a strong bond and should be kept alive, said study group member Bernie Hunhoff of St. Agnes at Sigel. “Smaller parishes have value. We have 180 or more parishes that have already consolidated,” he said. “I don’t think you just come and say, ‘You’re closed.’” The bishop did not allow the study group to include options such as foreign priests and retired priests, Hunhoff said. He hopes those avenues are restored. “We can send a message that small parishes are very important if they are viable and active,” he said. The priest shortage affects more than just small churches, Hunhoff said. “It’s gotten to the point where we won’t have enough priests for larger parishes,” he said. “We have to make it work in the future with fewer priests.”

Andersen worried that rural parishioners will lose their close-knit relationships if they are forced to attend large parishes.

It’s up to each Catholic to strengthen his or her faith, Leader responded. “You can be as involved as you want to be,” she said. “You can be as active as you want in a large parish, or as lost as you want to be in a small parish. You can be as involved or you can get lost in either parish.”

Parish membership is not the only measure of a priest’s workload, Heidt said. The number of Masses, sacraments and ministries are also part of everyday life, he said.

Under one of the study group’s proposal, Sacred Heart Church in Yankton will be cut from the current four Masses per weekend to three.

That could create problems for the proposal, said study group member Martin Sieverding of St. George in Scotland. “I believe the sticking point (is limiting) Sacred Heart to three Masses and one priest,” he said. “There isn’t enough for two but too many for one.” On the other hand, priests serving multiple rural parishes face challenges, Sieverding said. “If you take into account the prep time for a Mass or funeral, then you need to take drive time into account,” he said.

Discussion also arose over the possible grouping of parishes under one priest.

Ken Kocer, a study group member from St. Wenceslaus of Tabor, recommended some changes among the proposals’ parish assignments. “I don’t think the load is fairly distributed,” he said. “Putting Tyndall and Tabor together is a big load.”

Sieverding agreed, suggesting a swap of Scotland and Lesterville under one proposal. He also expressed concern about confusion over alternating Mass times under the proposals.

The meeting featured one newcomer, as Greg Schneider of St. Leo in Tyndall filled in for regular member John Cihak. “It’s been a difficult process,” Schneider said. “The group did the best it could with the parameters before you. I commend you from a spectator’s point of view.”

Keeping The Faith

Monday’s meeting drew reaction when the floor was opened for audience comments. One man said priests should expect to work long hours and travel great distances. “If Jesus would tell His disciples that they don’t have to go away, where would Christianity be?” he asked. “If you go into the priesthood, (you) have to travel from Day One.” The audience member said traveling priests make financial sense. “With this economy, all these people travel to one priest who is further away than one priest who comes closer to the people, with the parish paying for the gas?” he asked. “Should we always expect to go to the priest, when he could go to the people and spread the Word?”

One woman wondered if the Broom Tree diocesan retreat, near Irene, couldn’t be incorporated with parish activities at St. Columba at Mayfield and St. Agnes at Sigel.

Heidt commended the study group members for their dedication. “It’s a long process, but it’s really important to go through the process,” he said.

While the seven planning meetings sparked spirited discussion, they also brought a sense of hope and optimism for the area parishes. Many of the meetings drew a full room, as audience members spoke of the importance of their Catholic faith and keeping their parishes alive.

The planning process has brought numerous benefits, Heidt said. “It’s a blessing for us to come out and learn about the deep faith that people have,” he said. “The Catholic faith is important to us as individuals and as a community. I’m glad to see the deep faith in these communities.”

After growing up on a small farm near a small town, Father Bob Lacey of Sacred Heart Church in Yankton said he understands the passion for rural parishes. “I have been (assigned) to Aberdeen and Pierre, and now here, and it’s been a great blessing to serve so many parishes,” he said. “I look forward to serving you (rural parishes) someday.”

Similar optimism was expressed by Father Joe Puthenkulathil of St. Wenceslaus Church in Tabor and St. John the Baptist Church in Lesterville. “I am grateful to all of you,” he told the audience. “I hope they find a way to keep all of these parishes open.” Yankton Press & Dakotan

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